The Practical Guide to Humanitarian Law

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


Pillage is the systematic and violent appropriation by members of the armed forces of movable public or private property that belongs either to persons protected by humanitarian conventions (civilians, wounded and sick, shipwrecked, and prisoners of war) or to the adverse State or party itself. Parties to the conflict are under obligation to take all necessary measures to protect the wounded, the dead, or any person exposed to grave danger from pillage and ill treatment (Art. 4 of the Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, signed in The Hague on 14 May 1954, under the aegis of UNESCO; GCI Art. 15; GCII Art. 18; GCIII Arts. 16, 33; and APII Art. 4).

Pillage is a war crime, as established by the statutes and judgments of the Nuremberg and Tokyo military tribunals as well as by the Rome Statute of the ICC. Furthermore, it is a grave violation of the Geneva Conventions if it takes the form of “extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly” (GCI Art. 50, GCII Art. 51, GCIII Art. 130, GCIV Art. 147, and APII Art. 4). It is forbidden in both international and internal conflicts by the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols as well as by customary international humanitarian law (Rule 52 of the ICRC customary IHL study) and international criminal law (Rome Statute of the ICC, Art. 8.2.b.xvi IAC; Art. 8.2.e.v NIAC).

It is important to distinguish between pillage, which is always prohibited, and requisition, which is an authorized form of appropriating property. Other provisions of humanitarian law regulate the limited right to requisition during armed conflicts. ▸ Methods (and means) of warfareRequisition

As for immovable property, its appropriation, even through force or violence, does not change its physical location. Such appropriation is therefore not considered pillage but rather stealing and may be prosecuted as such. The destruction of such immovable property is specifically forbidden by the Geneva Conventions if it belongs to the categories of persons it protects. These are civilian objects and property (including enemy civilian property), cultural property, and objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population (API Arts. 52–54; APII Arts. 13, 14).

Protected objects and propertyRequisitionWar crimes/Crimes against humanity

In the Tuta and Stela Case ( Prosecutor v. Mladen Naletilic, aka “Tuta” and Vinko Martinovic, aka “Stela,” 31 March 2003), the Trial Chamber of the ICTY considered that pillage was “willful and unlawful appropriation of property,” and that it may affect both private and public property (para. 612). It further explains that the term pillage is general in scope, comprising not only large-scale seizures of property within the framework of systematic economic exploitations of occupied territory but also acts of appropriation committed by individual soldiers for their private gain. Under international law, plunder does not require the appropriation to be extensive or to involve a large economic value, yet it must involve grave consequences for the victims, thus amounting to a serious violation of humanitarian law (paras. 612–614).

In the Blaskic Case ( Prosecutor v. Tihomir Blaskic , 3 March 2000), the ICTY Trial Chamber furthermore explained that plunder should be understood to embrace all forms of unlawful appropriation of property in armed conflict for which individual criminal responsibility attaches under international law, including those acts traditionally described as “pillage” (para. 184).

In the Brcko Case ( Prosecutor v. Goran Jelisic , 14 December 1999), the ICTY Trial Chamber explained that pillage has to be perpetrated during an armed conflict and related thereto in order to be a war crime (para. 48).

For Additional Information: Dinstein, Yoram. The Conduct of Hostilities under the Law of International Armed Conflict . Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 213–20.

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