Judgement of: 16 November 1998



ZDRAVKO MUCIC also known as "PAVO"



2. Legal Character of Command Responsibility and its Status Under Customary International Law

  1. That military commanders and other persons occupying positions of superior authority may be held criminally responsible for the unlawful conduct of their subordinates is a well-established norm of customary and conventional international law. This criminal liability may arise either out of the positive acts of the superior (sometimes referred to as "direct" command responsibility) or from his culpable omissions ("indirect" command responsibility or command responsibility strictu sensu). Thus, a superior may be held criminally responsible not only for ordering, instigating or planning criminal acts carried out by his subordinates, but also for failing to take measures to prevent or repress the unlawful conduct of his subordinates. As noted in the Report of the Secretary-General on the establishment of the International Tribunal:

    A person in a position of superior authority should, therefore, be held individually responsible for giving the unlawful order to commit a crime under the present statute. But he should also be held responsible for failure to prevent a crime or to deter the unlawful behaviour of his subordinates. This imputed responsibility or criminal negligence is engaged if the person in superior authority knew, or had reason to know, that his subordinates were about to commit or had committed crimes and yet failed to take the necessary and reasonable steps to prevent or repress the commission of such crimes or to punish those who had committed them.

  2. The distinct legal character of the two types of superior responsibility must be noted. While the criminal liability of a superior for positive acts follows from general principles of accomplice liability, as set out in the discussion of Article 7(1) above, the criminal responsibility of superiors for failing to take measures to prevent or repress the unlawful conduct of their subordinates is best understood when seen against the principle that criminal responsibility for omissions is incurred only where there exists a legal obligation to act. As is most clearly evidenced in the case of military commanders by article 87 of Additional Protocol I, international law imposes an affirmative duty on superiors to prevent persons under their control from committing violations of international humanitarian law, and it is ultimately this duty that provides the basis for, and defines the contours of, the imputed criminal responsibility under Article 7(3) of the Statute.

  3. Although historically not without recognition in domestic military law, it is often suggested that the roots of the modern doctrine of command responsibility may be found in the Hague Conventions of 1907. It was not until the end of the First World War, however, that the notion of individual criminal responsibility for failure to take the necessary measures to prevent or to repress breaches of the laws of armed conflict was given explicit expression in an international context. In its report presented to the Preliminary Peace Conference in 1919, the International Commission on the Responsibility of the Authors of the War and on Enforcement of Penalties recommended that a tribunal be established for the prosecution of, inter alia, all those who,

    ordered, or with knowledge thereof and with power to intervene, abstained from preventing or taking measures to prevent, putting an end to or repressing violations of the laws or customs of war.

  4. Such a tribunal was never realised, however, and it was only in the aftermath of the Second World War that the doctrine of command responsibility for failure to act received its first judicial recognition in an international context. Whilst not provided for in the Charters of the Nürnberg or Tokyo Tribunals, nor expressly addressed in Control Council Law No. 10, a number of States at this time enacted legislation recognising the principle. For example, article 4 of the French Ordinance of 28 August 1944, Concerning the Suppression of War Crimes, provided:

    Where a subordinate is prosecuted as the actual perpetrator of a war crime, and his superiors cannot be indicted as being equally responsible, they shall be considered as accomplices in so far as they have organised or tolerated the criminal acts of their subordinates.

  5. Similarly, article IX of the Chinese Law of 24 October 1946, Governing the Trial of War Criminals, stated:

    Persons who occupy a supervisory or commanding position in relation to war criminals and in their capacity as such have not fulfilled their duty to prevent crimes from being committed by their subordinates shall be treated as the accomplices of such war criminals.

  6. In a number of cases against German and Japanese war criminals following the Second World War, beginning with the trial of the Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita before a United States Military Commission in Manila, the principle of command responsibility for failure to act was relied upon by military courts and tribunals as a valid basis for placing individual criminal responsibility on superiors for the criminal acts of their subordinates. Thus, the United States Supreme Court, in its well-known holding in In Re Yamashita, answered in the affirmative the question of whether the law of war imposed on an army commander a duty to take the appropriate measures within his power to control the troops under his command for the prevention of acts in violation of the laws of war, and whether he may be charged with personal responsibility for failure to take such measures when violations result. Similarly, the United States Military Tribunal at Nürnberg, in United States v. Karl Brandt and others (hereafter "Medical Case"), declared that "the law of war imposes on a military officer in a position of command an affirmative duty to take such steps as are within his power and appropriate to the circumstances to control those under his command for the prevention of acts which are violations of the law of war352." Likewise, in United States v Wilhelm List et al. (hereafter "Hostage Case") it was held that "a corps commander must be held responsible for the acts of his subordinate commanders in carrying out his orders and for acts which the corps commander knew or ought to have known about. Again, in United States v Wilhelm von Leeb et al. (hereafter "High Command Case") the tribunal declared that:

    [u]nder basic principles of command authority and responsibility, an officer who merely stands by while his subordinates execute a criminal order of his superiors which he knows is criminal violates a moral obligation under international law. By doing nothing he cannot wash his hands of international responsibility.

  7. While different aspects of this body of case law arising out of the Second World War will be considered in greater detail below as the Trial Chamber addresses the more specific content of the requisite elements of superior responsibility under Article 7(3), it is helpful here to further recall the finding made in the trial of the Japanese Admiral Soemu Toyoda before a military tribunal in Tokyo. Declaring that it had carefully studied, and followed, the precedents of other tribunals on the question of command responsibility, the tribunal, after setting out at some length what it considered to be the essential elements of this principle, concluded:

    In the simplest language it may be said that this Tribunal believes that the principle of command responsibility to be that, if this accused knew, or should by the exercise of ordinary diligence have learned, of the commission by his subordinates, immediate or otherwise, of the atrocities proved beyond a shadow of a doubt before this Tribunal or of the existence of a routine which would countenance such, and, by his failure to take any action to punish the perpetrators, permitted the atrocities to continue, he has failed in his performance of his duty as a commander and must be punished.

  8. In the period following the Second World War until the present time, the doctrine of command responsibility has not been applied by any international judicial organ. Nonetheless, there can be no doubt that the concept of the individual criminal responsibility of superiors for failure to act is today firmly placed within the corpus of international humanitarian law. Through the adoption of Additional Protocol I, the principle has now been codified and given a clear expression in international conventional law. Thus, article 87 of the Protocol gives expression to the duty of commanders to control the acts of their subordinates and to prevent or, where necessary, to repress violations of the Geneva Conventions or the Protocol. The concomitant principle under which a superior may be held criminally responsible for the crimes committed by his subordinates where the superior has failed to properly exercise this duty is formulated in article 86 of the Protocol. A survey of the travaux préparatoires of these provisions reveals that, while their inclusion was not uncontested during the drafting of the Protocol, a number of delegations clearly expressed the view that the principles expressed therein were in conformity with pre-existing law. Thus, the Swedish delegate declared that these articles reaffirmed the principles of international penal responsibility that were developed after the Second World War. Similarly, the Yugoslav delegate expressed the view that the article on the duty of commanders contained provisions which had already been accepted in "military codes of all countries".