Reciprocity plays a significant part in influencing the behaviour of parties to an armed conflict and has had a prominent role in the creation, enforcement and indeed breach of the law of armed conflict. However, international law regulating armed conflict has been moving away from the idea of reciprocal obligations to more universal or absolute obligations. The great exception to the decline of reciprocity has been provided by the doctrine of belligerent reprisals, whereby a party to an armed conflict might as a last resort deliberately breach the applicable law in response to breaches by the enemy and for the purpose of forcing a return to respect for the law. Recourse to reprisals has been increasingly restricted by the law of armed conflict, but not completely outlawed, and reprisals are one of the remaining vestiges of the legal concept of reciprocity within the law of armed conflict. Section 1 considers reciprocity in the law of armed conflict, with regard in particular to the application of the law to a situation of armed conflict and the observance of those laws in the event of a breach by an opponent. Section 2 sets out the customary law requirements governing resort to reprisals and the scope of the existing legal prohibitions, and Section 3 examines frequent challenges to the existing law, in particular the role of reciprocity and reprisals in non-international armed conflicts, the scope of permissible reprisals and the challenges presented by the “war on terror” and asymmetric warfare. The authors concludes that the near total outlawing of belligerent reprisals and elimination of reciprocity reinforce the absolute nature of obligations under the law of armed conflict.
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