The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

« Calling things by the wrong name adds to the affliction of the world. » Albert Camus.

Corporal Punishment

In times of armed conflict, it is prohibited under international law to inflict corporal punishment on any protected person, including prisoners of war (GCIII Art. 87, GCIV Art. 32, API Art. 75.2.a, and APII Art. 4.2.a).

This rule is now recognized as a mandatory norm of customary law (Rule 91 of the ICRC customary IHL study published in 2005). It applies in international and non-international armed conflicts, even as a sanction pronounced by State authorities or non-state armed groups in case of military occupation. This prohibition also relates to mutilation, medical or scientific experiments, or any other medical procedure not indicated by the state of health of the person concerned and not consistent with generally accepted medical standards (Rule 92). This twofold prohibition obliges doctors to refuse to participate in the administration of corporal punishment in times of armed conflict.

In other circumstances, international law prohibits torture, inhuman or degrading treatment, and mutilations. Most legal systems have abolished corporal punishments as penalties within criminal and disciplinary sanctions. However, corporal punishment—which may include sentences as serious as the amputation of body parts or death sentence—is still accepted as a penal sanction in criminal law of certain countries. Even where legal, these sanctions may not be pronounced until after a fair trial has been held, one that respects basic norms of judicial guarantees. Such guarantees are defined in international human rights and humanitarian law conventions.

Ill treatmentJudicial guaranteesMedical ethicsSanctionsTorture

For Additional Information: Bahrampour, Firouzeh. “Note and Comment: The Caning of Michael Fay; Can Singapore’s Punishment Withstand the Scrutiny of International Law?” American University Journal of International Law & Policy 10 (Spring 1995): 1075.

British Medical Association. The Medical Profession and Human Rights: Handbook for a Changing Agenda . London: Zed, in association with BMA, 2001, esp. chap. 7.

Rodley, Nigel S. The Treatment of Prisoners under International Law . Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1999.

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