Military occupation

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US tanks under Baghdad's Victory Arch in occupied Iraq
Parade of the 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles in Hiroshima Prefecture during the occupation of Japan after World War II.

Military occupation, also known as belligerent occupation or simply occupation, is the temporary military control by a ruling power over a territory that is outside of that power's sovereign territory.[1][2][3][4] The territory is then known as the occupied territory and the ruling power the occupant.[5] Occupation is distinguished from annexation and colonialism by its intended temporary duration.[4][6] While an occupant may set up a formal military government in the occupied territory to facilitate its administration, it is not a necessary precondition for occupation.[7]

The rules of occupation are delineated in various international agreements, primarily the Hague Convention of 1907, the Geneva Conventions of 1949, as well as established state practice. The relevant international conventions, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Commentaries, and other treaties by military scholars provide guidelines on such topics as rights and duties of the occupying power, protection of civilians, treatment of prisoners of war, coordination of relief efforts, issuance of travel documents, property rights of the populace, handling of cultural and art objects, management of refugees, and other concerns which are very important both before and after the cessation of hostilities. A country that establishes an occupation and violates internationally agreed upon norms runs the risk of censure, criticism, or condemnation. In the current era, the practices of occupations have largely become a part of customary international law, and form a part of the laws of war.

Occupation and the laws of war[edit]

From the second half of the 18th century onwards, international law has come to distinguish between the occupation of a country and territorial acquisition by invasion and annexation,[8] the difference between the two being originally expounded upon by Emerich de Vattel in The Law of Nations (1758).[8] The clear distinction has been recognized among the principles of international law since the end of the Napoleonic wars in the 19th century.[8]

The Hague Convention of 1907 codified these customary laws, specifically within "Laws and Customs of War on Land" (Hague IV); October 18, 1907: "Section III Military Authority over the territory of the hostile State".[9] The first two articles of that section state:

Art. 42.
Territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army.
The occupation extends only to the territory where such authority has been established and can be exercised.

Art. 43.
The authority of the legitimate power having in fact passed into the hands of the occupant, the latter shall take all the measures in his power to restore, and ensure, as far as possible, public order and safety, while respecting, unless absolutely prevented, the laws in force in the country.

In 1949 these laws governing the occupation of an enemy state's territory were further extended by the adoption of the Fourth Geneva Convention (GCIV). Much of GCIV is relevant to protected civilians in occupied territories and Section III: Occupied territories is a specific section covering the issue. Under GCIV, protected civilians in general are:[10]

  • those "who ... find themselves ... in the hands of a Party to the conflict or Occupying Power of which they are not nationals".[11] This generally refers to civilians of an enemy state, including refugees, and stateless persons.
  • neutral citizens in occupied territory regardless of diplomatic status
  • refugees of the occupying power prior to hostilities who cannot be arrested, prosecuted, or deported from occupied territory except for crimes committed after the conflict or beforehand which are also crimes under the law of the occupied state that would permit peacetime extradition as defined under Article 70[12]

Nationals of an enemy state not a signatory or acceded to GCIV are not protected by it. Neutral citizens who are in the home territory of a belligerent nation if their country of origin has diplomatic ties or elsewhere outside occupied territory are not protected.[nb 1] Nationals of a co-belligerent (allied) state which holds diplomatic ties with a belligerent nation are excluded from protection in both locations.[10]

On whether the definition of military occupation applies to anywhere else, the 2023 United States Department of Defense (DOD)'s Law of War Manual states "the law of belligerent occupation generally does not apply to (1) mere invasion; (2) liberation of friendly territory; (3) non-international armed conflict; or (4) post-war situations (except for certain provisions of the GC [IV])." The DOD's statement is consistent with the definitions provided by Article 42 of the 1907 Fourth Hague Convention and Article 4 of the Fourth Geneva Convention.[15]

Article 6 of GCIV restricts the length of time that most of the convention applies:

The present Convention shall apply from the outset of any conflict or occupation mentioned in Article 2.

In the territory of Parties to the conflict, the application of the present Convention shall cease on the general close of military operations.

In the case of occupied territory, the application of the present Convention shall cease one year after the general close of military operations; however, the Occupying Power shall be bound, for the duration of the occupation, to the extent that such Power exercises the functions of government in such territory, by the provisions of the following Articles of the present Convention: 1 to 12, 27, 29 to 34, 47, 49, 51, 52, 53, 59, 61 to 77, 143.

GCIV emphasised an important change in international law. The United Nations Charter (June 26, 1945) had prohibited war of aggression (See articles 1.1, 2.3, 2.4) and GCIV Article 47, the first paragraph in Section III: Occupied territories, restricted the territorial gains which could be made through war by stating:

Protected persons who are in occupied territory shall not be deprived, in any case or in any manner whatsoever, of the benefits of the present Convention by any change introduced, as the result of the occupation of a territory, into the institutions or government of the said territory, nor by any agreement concluded between the authorities of the occupied territories and the Occupying Power, nor by any annexation by the latter of the whole or part of the occupied territory.

Article 49 prohibits the forced mass movement of protected civilians out of or into occupied state's territory:

Individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory to the territory of the Occupying Power or to that of any other country, occupied or not, are prohibited, regardless of their motive. ... The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.

Protocol I (1977): "Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts" has additional articles which cover occupation but many countries including the U.S. are not signatory to this additional protocol.

In the situation of a territorial cession as the result of war, the specification of a "receiving country" in the peace treaty merely means that the country in question is authorized by the international community to establish civil government in the territory. The military government of the principal occupying power will continue past the point in time when the peace treaty comes into force, until it is legally supplanted.

"Military government continues until legally supplanted" is the rule, as stated in Military Government and Martial Law, by William E. Birkhimer, 3rd edition 1914.

Beginning of the occupation[edit]

German troops parade down the Champs-Élysées in Paris after their victory in the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71)

Article 42 under Section III of the 1907 Fourth Hague Convention specifies that a "[t]erritory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army." The form of administration by which an occupying power exercises government authority over occupied territory is called military government. Neither the Hague Conventions nor the Geneva Conventions specifically define or distinguish an act of "invasion". Article 2 of the Geneva Conventions expanded on this to include situations in which no armed resistance is encountered.[16]

There does not have to be a formal announcement of the beginning of a military government, nor is there any requirement of a specific number of people to be in place, for an occupation to commence. Birkhimer writes:

No proclamation of part of the victorious commander is necessary to the lawful inauguration and enforcement of military government. That government results from the fact that the former sovereignty is ousted, and the opposing army now has control. Yet the issuing such proclamation is useful as publishing to all living in the district occupied those rules of conduct which will govern the conqueror in the exercise of his authority. Wellington, indeed, as previously mentioned, said that the commander is bound to lay down distinctly the rules according to which his will is to be carried out. But the laws of war do not imperatively require this, and in very many instances it is not done. When it is not, the mere fact that the country is militarily occupied by the enemy is deemed sufficient notification to all concerned that the regular has been supplanted by a military government. (pp. 25–26)

Effective control[edit]

The effective control of a territory by the occupying power mentioned in Article 42[nb 2] of the 1907 Fourth Hague Convention should not be read too narrowly.[17] The survey of the case-law reveals that the temporal duration of effective control by the occupying power and its encounter with insurgents, terrorists or guerillas that are able to exercise control over certain areas of the country are immaterial to the applicability of the law of occupation and do not alter the legal status of the occupied territory. For example, in 1948 the U.S. Military Tribunal in Nuremberg held that:

In belligerent occupation the occupying power does not hold enemy territory by virtue of any legal right. On the contrary, it merely exercises a precarious and temporary actual control.[17]

End of occupation[edit]

According to Eyal Benvenisti, occupation can end in a number of ways, such as: "loss of effective control, namely when the occupant is no longer capable of exercising its authority; through the genuine consent of the sovereign (the ousted government or an indigenous one) by the signing of a peace agreement; or by transferring authority to an indigenous government endorsed by the occupied population through referendum and which has received international recognition".[18]

Protesters opposed to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon

Examples of occupations[edit]

German stamp inscribed with "Soviet Occupation Zone", 1948

Some examples of military occupation came into existence as an outcome of World War I and World War II:

An Israeli military checkpoint in the occupied West Bank.

A number of post-1945 occupations have lasted more than 20 years, such as those of Namibia by South Africa, of East Timor by Indonesia, of Northern Cyprus by Turkey and of Western Sahara by Morocco.[19] One of the world's longest ongoing occupations is Israel's occupation of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip (1967–present), both Palestinian territories, along with the Syrian Golan Heights.[20]

Other prolonged occupations that have been alleged include those of the Falkland Islands/Malvinas, claimed by Argentina, by the United Kingdom (1833–present), of Tibet by PR China (1950), and of Hawaii by the United States (1893). The War Report makes no determination as to whether belligerent occupation is occurring in these cases.[21]

Examples of occupation which took place in the second half of the 20th century include:

Examples of occupation in the 21st century include:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ GCIV only applies the protection of neutral citizens in either occupied territory or in the home territory of a belligerent nation if their country of origin has no diplomatic ties. It was never intended to protect such nationals anywhere else in the world.[13] Thus, the protection of neutral nationals who are outside the two locations mentioned in the preceding sentence are governed by the 1907 Fifth and 13th Hague Conventions.[14]
  2. ^ According to article 42 of the 1907 Fourth Hague Convention, "[t]erritory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army. The occupation applies only to the territory where such authority is established, and in a position to assert itself."[17]


  1. ^ Bracka, J. (2021). Transitional Justice for Israel/Palestine: Truth-Telling and Empathy in Ongoing Conflict. Springer series in transitional justice. Springer International Publishing AG. ISBN 978-3-030-89435-1. Today, the widely accepted definition of occupation is 'the effective control of a power (be it one or more states or an international organization, such as the United Nations) over a territory to which that power has no sovereign title, without the volition of the sovereign of that territory'
  2. ^ Roberts, Adam (1990). "Prolonged Military Occupation: The Israeli-Occupied Territories Since 1967". American Journal of International Law. 84 (1). Cambridge University Press (CUP): 44–103. doi:10.2307/2203016. ISSN 0002-9300. JSTOR 2203016. S2CID 145514740.
  3. ^ Eyāl Benveniśtî. The international law of occupation. Princeton University Press, 2004. ISBN 0-691-12130-3, ISBN 978-0-691-12130-7, p. 43
  4. ^ a b Edelstein, David M. (2004). "Occupational Hazards: Why Military Occupations Succeed or Fail". International Security. 29 (1): 49–91. doi:10.1162/0162288041762913. ISSN 0162-2889. JSTOR 4137547. S2CID 57571525.
  5. ^ Fabre, Cécile. "Living with the enemy: the ethics of belligerent occupation" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2018-11-30. Retrieved 2018-11-30.
  6. ^ Stirk, Peter (2009). The Politics of Military Occupation. Edinburgh University Press. p. 44. ISBN 9780748636716. The significance of the temporary nature of military occupation is that it brings about no change of allegiance. Military government remains an alien government whether of short or long duration, though prolonged occupation may encourage the occupying power to change military occupation into something else, namely annexation
  7. ^ Roberts, Adam (1985). "What is a Military Occupation?". British Yearbook of International Law. 55: 249–305. doi:10.1093/bybil/55.1.249.
  8. ^ a b c Cole, Babaloba (1974). "Property and the Law of Belligerent Occupation: A Reexamination". World Affairs. 137 (1): 66–85. JSTOR 20671544.
  9. ^ "The Avalon Project – Laws of War : Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague IV); October 18, 1907". Retrieved 2022-06-30.
  10. ^ a b "Protected persons". International Committee of the Red Cross.
  11. ^ Article 4, GCIV
  12. ^ "Convention (IV) relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War. Geneva, 12 August 1949.: Commentary of 1958: Article 70 - Penal legislation. VII. Offences committed before occupation". International Committee of the Red Cross.
  13. ^ Howard C. Nielson Jr. (August 5, 2005). MEMORANDUM FOR THE FILES: Whether Persons Captured and Detained in Afghanistan are "Protected Persons" under the Fourth Geneva Convention (PDF). United States Department of Justice. p. 14-16.
  14. ^ "THE LAW OF ARMED CONFLICT: Neutrality" (PDF). International Committee of the Red Cross.
  15. ^ Department of Defense Law of War Manual: June 2015 (Updated July 2023) (PDF). United States Department of Defense. July 31, 2023. p. 771-772 & 778.
  16. ^ Ferraro, Tristan. "Determining the beginning and end of an occupation under international humanitarian law".
  17. ^ a b c Yutuka Arai (2009). The Law of Occupation Continuity and Change of International Humanitarian Law, and its Interaction with International Human Rights Law. BRILL. pp. 6–8. ISBN 978-90-04-18062-8.
  18. ^ Eyal Benvenisti (23 February 2012). The International Law of Occupation. OUP Oxford. p. 56. ISBN 978-0-19-163957-9. The conditions that define when occupation begins also identify when it ends. Obviously, occupation can end in a number of ways: with the loss of effective control, namely when the occupant is no longer capable of exercising its authority; through the genuine consent of the sovereign (the ousted government or an indigenous one) by the signing of a peace agreement; or by transferring authority to an indigenous government endorsed by the occupied population through referendum and which has received international recognition.
  19. ^ Weill, Sharon (2014). The Role of National Courts in Applying International Humanitarian Law. Oxford University Press. p. 22. ISBN 9780199685424. Although the basic philosophy behind the law of military occupation is that it is a temporary situation modem occupations have well demonstrated that rien ne dure comme le provisoire A significant number of post-1945 occupations have lasted more than two decades such as the occupations of Namibia by South Africa and of East Timor by Indonesia as well as the ongoing occupations of Northern Cyprus by Turkey and of Western Sahara by Morocco. The Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories, which is the longest in all occupation's history has already entered its fifth decade.
  20. ^ The majority of the international community (including the UN General Assembly, the United Nations Security Council, the European Union, the International Criminal Court, and the vast majority of human rights organizations) considers Israel to be occupying Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem.
    The government of Israel and some supporters have, at times, disputed this. For more details of this terminology dispute, including with respect to the current status of the Gaza Strip, see International views on the Israeli-occupied territories and Status of territories captured by Israel.
    See for example:
    * Hajjar, Lisa (2005). Courting Conflict: The Israeli Military Court System in the West Bank and Gaza. University of California Press. p. 96. ISBN 978-0520241947. The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza is the longest military occupation in modern times.
    * Anderson, Perry (July–August 2001). "Editorial: Scurrying Towards Bethlehem". New Left Review. 10. Archived from the original on 2018-10-01. Retrieved 2015-10-05. ...longest official military occupation of modern history—currently entering its thirty-fifth year
    * Makdisi, Saree (2010). Palestine Inside Out: An Everyday Occupation. W. W. Norton & Company. ISBN 9780393338447. ...longest-lasting military occupation of the modern age
    * Kretzmer, David (Spring 2012). "The law of belligerent occupation in the Supreme Court of Israel" (PDF). International Review of the Red Cross. 94 (885): 207–236. doi:10.1017/S1816383112000446. S2CID 32105258. This is probably the longest occupation in modern international relations, and it holds a central place in all literature on the law of belligerent occupation since the early 1970s
    * Said, Edward (2003). Culture and Resistance: Conversations with Edward W. Said. Pluto Press. p. 33. ISBN 9780745320175. These are settlements and a military occupation that is the longest in the twentieth and twenty-first century, the longest formerly being the Japanese occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945. So this is thirty-three years old, pushing the record.
    *Alexandrowicz, Ra'anan (24 January 2012), "The Justice of Occupation", The New York Times, Israel is the only modern state that has held territories under military occupation for over four decades
  21. ^ "The War Report 2014 | Rulac". Retrieved 2022-06-30.
  22. ^ Couto, Francisco Cabral (2006). Remembering the Fall of Portuguese India in 1961. Tribuna da Historia. ISBN 972-8799-53-5.
  23. ^ "UNTEA and UNRWI: United Nations Involvement in West New Guinea During the 1960's" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2018-02-05. Retrieved 2021-02-11.
  24. ^ "Freedom of the press in Indonesian-occupied West Papua". The Guardian. 22 July 2019.
  25. ^ "Israel's Occupation of the Golan Heights Is Illegal and Dangerous". Foreign Policy. 5 February 2019.
  26. ^ "Cyprus may have missed its last chance for reunification". The Economist. 9 July 2017.
  27. ^ Matsumoto, Shoji. "Saharan provinces – Taking Cherry Blossom Case as an Example" (PDF).
  28. ^ "УКАЗ ПРЕЗИДЕНТА УКРАЇНИ №32/2019". The Presidential Office of Ukraine.

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