Why Not Reprisals?
Throughout history the threat of reprisal has been the only means nations used to compel adversaries to comply with the laws of war. While this may have had some success at limiting the most heinous torture and abuse of prisoners of war and civilians under occupation, threat of reprisal is not effective at insuring general compliance with the laws of war.
This is because the most likely result of any reprisal is a retaliatory reprisal, which then creates an inescapable and unending cycle of violence.
Based on the experience of World War I, the 1929 Geneva Convention forbid any reprisals against prisoners of war. After World War II, the 1949 Geneva Convention went on to forbid all reprisals against civilians, buildings used by civilians or used for the treatment of the wounded, historical or religious sites, or the natural environment. This limits the scope of reprisals to essentially military targets which in war could lawfully be attacked in any case.
The Geneva conventions make clear that reprisals are forbidden absolutely- even if an enemy breaks the convention this does not justify forbidden reprisals.
Explanation of the Geneva Convention prohibition of reprisals by the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Detailed explanation of the conditions that must be met for a reprisal to comply with the Geneva Conventions. From the International Committee of the Red Cross.
An explanation of how during the first world war prisoners of war were frequent subjects of reprisals, and how negotiations led to better conditions and repatriation of some prisoners from both sides. From Humanitarian Law and policy.
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