contraband, in international law, goods necessary or useful in the prosecution of war that a belligerent may lawfully seize from a neutral who is attempting to deliver them to the enemy. The term is sometimes also applied to the goods carried into a country by smuggling. The penalty for carrying contraband goods is the confiscation of the goods and often also of the vessel (see prize). Neutral ships guilty of direct assistance to the enemy may be treated as enemy ships. International law has not precisely defined all classes of goods that are contraband of war per se. Munitions are certainly absolute contraband, but the status of food and other conditional contraband at least indirectly needed for war is often in doubt. At the second (1907) of the Hague Conferences a vain attempt to define the classes of contraband was made. In World War I many powers at first agreed to abide by the terms of the Declaration of London (see London, Declaration of) respecting contraband, but in time unconditional blockade of all goods was adopted. At the beginning of World War II the belligerents drew up lists of absolute and conditional contraband, but the total absorption of the economy in warfare led to the prohibition, so far as possible, of all shipping to the enemy.

See P. C. Jessup, The Early Development of the Law of Contraband of War (1933).

The English word contraband, reported in English since 1529, from Medieval French contrebande "a smuggling," derived via Italian contrabando from Latin contra "against" + Middle Latin bannum (from Frankish root ban "a command", as in Italian bando 'law'; also the root of 'banishment'), denotes any item which, relating to its nature, is illegal to be possessed, sold et cetera.

However the term is also commonly and in legal language used for goods that by their nature, e.g. too dangerous or offensive in the eyes of the legislator (those are termed contraband in se) are forbidden, and for so-called derivative contrabande, i.e. goods that may normally be owned but are liable to be seized because they were used in committing an unlawful act and hence begot illegally, such as:

  • Smuggling goods
  • stolen goods - knowingly participating in their trade is an offense in itself, called fencing
  • the fruits of fraud, forgery etc.

The word is also used as an adjective, again meaning 'distributed or sold illicitly'.

International law of war

In international law, contraband is any goods carried by vessels of neutral nations during wartime that may be confiscated by a belligerent power and thus prohibited from delivery to the enemy. Traditionally, contraband is classified into two categories, absolute contraband and conditional contraband. The former category includes arms, munitions, and various materials, such as chemicals and certain types of machinery that may be used directly to wage war or be converted into instruments of war.

Conditional contraband, formerly known as occasional contraband, consists of such materials as provisions and livestock feed. Cargo of this kind, while presumably innocent in character, is subject to seizure if, in the opinion of the belligerent nation that seizes them, the supplies are destined for the armed forces of the enemy rather than for civilian use and consumption. In former agreements among nations, certain other commodities, including soap, paper, clocks, agricultural machinery and jewelry, have been classified as non-contraband, although these distinctions have proved meaningless in practice.

Under conditions of modern warfare, in which armed conflict has largely become a struggle involving the total populations of the contending powers, virtually all commodities are classified by belligerents as absolute contraband.

Numerous treaties defining contraband have been concluded among nations. In time of war, the nations involved have invariably violated these agreements, formulating their own definitions as the fortunes of war indicated. The Declaration of London, drafted at the London Naval Conference of 1908-1909, and made partly effective by most of the European maritime nations at the outbreak of World War I, established comprehensive classifications of absolute and conditional contraband. As the war developed, the lists of articles in each category were constantly revised by the various belligerents, despite protests by neutral powers engaged in the carrying trade. By 1916 the list of conditional contraband included practically all waterborne cargo. Thereafter, for the duration of World War I, nearly all cargo in transit to an enemy nation was treated as contraband of war by the intercepting belligerent, regardless of the nature of the cargo. A similar policy was inaugurated by the belligerent powers early in World War II.

Under international law, the citizens of neutral nations are entitled to trade, at their own risk, with any or all powers engaged in war. No duty to restrain contraband trade is imposed on the neutral governments, but neither have neutral governments the right to interfere on behalf of citizens whose property is seized by one belligerent while in transit to another. The penalty traditionally imposed by belligerents on neutral carriers engaged in commercial traffic with the enemy consists of confiscation of cargo. By the Declaration of London, this was extended to include condemnation of the carrying vessel provided that more than half the cargo was contraband. The right of warring nations to sink neutral ships transporting contraband is not recognized in international law, but this practice was initiated by Germany in World War I and was often resorted to by the Axis Powers in World War II.

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