reprisal, in international law, the forcible taking, in time of peace, by one country of the property or territory belonging to another country or to the citizens of the other country, to be held as a pledge or as redress in order to satisfy a claim. A reprisal, technically, is not an act of war, because it is solely in response to conduct that violated international law. When, however, reprisals are taken against a power of equal strength, they may provoke war. The Covenant of the League of Nations and the Charter of the United Nations classify reprisals as acts endangering peace. Modern international law no longer recognizes private reprisal. This was the right of a private person to satisfy a legal claim against an alien by seizing property belonging to a person of the alien's nationality. The authority was contained in a letter of reprisal issued by the sovereign. Private reprisals all but disappeared by 1800, as the central authority of states grew stronger.
Not to be confused with a reprise.
In warfare, a reprisal is a limited and deliberate violation of the laws of war to punish an enemy for breaking the laws of war. A legally executed reprisal is not an atrocity.

To be legally justified, a reprisal can only be directed against the party carrying out the original violation, can only be carried out as a last resort, after having given formal notice of the planned reprisal, must be proportionate to the original violation, must have the aim of persuading the original violator to comply with the legally accepted behavior in future, and must not continue after the illegal behavior ends.

Circumstances usually dictate that reprisals can only be taken against people guilty of the original violation. However, there is always a probability that the reprisals will themselves be viewed as hostile acts, risking a vicious circle of violations by both sides.

All four Geneva Conventions prohibit reprisals against, respectively, battlefield casualties, shipwreck survivors, prisoners of war and civilians, as well as certain buildings and property. An additional 1977 protocol extends this to cover historic monuments, works of art and places of worship.

In the United States military, the lowest ranked commander who can authorize a reprisal is a general in command of a theater.


The word came from French, where it originally meant "act of taking back", for example, raiding back the equivalent of cattle lost to an enemy raid.

See also

Search another word or see reprisalon Dictionary | Thesaurus |Spanish
Copyright © 2015, LLC. All rights reserved.
  • Please Login or Sign Up to use the Recent Searches feature