REPRISALS AND REVENGE
שְׁפֹךְ חֲמָתְךָ אֶל־הַגּוֹיִם, אֲשֶׁר לֹא יְדָעֽוּךָ וְעַל־מַמְלָכוֹת אֲשֶׁר בְּשִׁמְךָ לֹא קָרָֽאוּ: כִּי אָכַל אֶת־יַעֲקֹב. וְאֶת־נָוֵֽהוּ הֵשַֽׁמּוּ: שְׁפָךְ־עֲלֵיהֶם זַעְמֶֽךָ, וַחֲרוֹן אַפְּךָ יַשִּׂיגֵם: תִּרְדֹּף בְּאַף וְתַשְׁמִידֵם, מִתַּֽחַת שְׁמֵי יְיָ
Pour out your wrath upon the nations that have not known you, and upon the kingdoms that do not call your name. For they have devoured Jacob and laid waste to his habitations. Pour your fury upon them, let your blazing anger overtake them. Pursue them with hatred and may they be destroyed from under God’s heavens.
For much of history the threat of reprisals has been the main way nations constrain one another during war. The threat of reprisal may have succeeded at deterring some particularly heinous atrocities from being carried out in war time, but by and large they are ineffective.
Rather than compelling countries to follow the laws of war, reprisals frequently have the opposite effect and cause these laws to be more swiftly abandoned. Nation A believes it has been violated by nation B, so it carries out a reprisal. Nation B denies the original violation, but views the reprisal itself as a violation of its own rights and retaliates for that. This leads to an unending cycle of violence. For this reason the Geneva Conventions took significant steps towards outlawing reprisals.
The best hope for bringing about compliance with the laws of war is to strengthen enforcement and punishment of war crimes. Just as individuals are deterred from committing regular crimes by police and the specter of punishment, armies can be deterred from committing war crimes if there is a significant chance they will be held accountable. The International Criminal Court in the Hague, established in 1998, aims to do that.
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The threat of reprisals may seem to be the best way to keep civilians safe. But in practice, it doesn’t usually work. . .
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