Michael A. Newton (Vanderbilt)
Duke J. Comp. & Int’l L. (forthcoming)
The prohibition on the use of reprisals is widely regarded as one of the most sacrosanct statements of the jus in bello applicable to the conduct of modern hostilities. The textual formulations are stark and subject to no derogations. Supporters of the bright line ban describe it as a vital “bulwark against barbarity.” In the words of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the prohibition is “absolute”, despite the fact that the declarations of key states indicate residual ambiguity over the scope of permissible reprisals, particularly in the context of non-international armed conflicts. Reprisals are a recurring feature of state practice, though conducted under varying legal rubrics and shifting rationales. Reasonable reprisals grounded on an empirical assessment of their deterrent value or framed as appropriate punishment for prior acts of terror may be the most morally acceptable and humane strategy for serving a strategic imperative of civilized society. Limited reprisals may in practice be essential to counteract the growing threat of transnational terrorists. Reasonable reprisals may represent the best long term way to erode support for those who would mobilize terrorist actors to willfully ignore the rules protecting innocent civilians thereby violating the most basic human rights of their victims. This is especially true if nations create clear lines of agreed legal authorities supported by independent adjudication of the motives and methods employed in such reprisals. Peace-loving states should seek common ground to enhance efforts to protect innocent citizens from the effects of terrorist violence. Thoughtful and multilateral reassessment of the lawful scope and rationale for reasonable reprisals is overdue.