Levée en Masse

By Karma Nabulsi 

The levée en masse, or mass uprising, has acquired something of a mythical status in the history of war. The Red Cross representative at the negotiations that produced the Geneva Conventions of 1949 said that they had “practically never occurred”; whereas in countries such as Poland, popular and long-lasting national uprisings took place with great regularity throughout the nineteenth century. Napoleon made increasing use of leveés as a means of national defense when the combined armies of the Allies entered French soil. Warsaw in the early days of the Nazi invasion during World War II is a more modern example.

The term levée en masse, which first became an international legal term at the Brussels Conference in 1874, must be distinguished under the laws of war from an insurrection by a people against its own national government. The levée en masse is defined as taking place against foreign troops either invading or occupying a country, restricting the definition to one involving national self-defense. It refers especially to situations in which the populace spontaneously takes up what weapons it has and, without having time to organize, resists the invasion.

Those who join in a levée may under certain circumstances claim the combatant’s privilege, that is, the right to fight the enemy. Captors may not prosecute combatants for their hostile acts but must grant them prisoner of war status upon capture. (They may be prosecuted, however, for other crimes and for disciplinary infractions.) The privilege is normally reserved for members of a country’s armed forces, including partisans.

There are several conditions for obtaining the combatant’s privilege. The levée en masse may be undertaken against foreign troops only when and where they invade the country. Participants must carry their weapons openly and respect the laws and customs of war. Once territory has become occupied, civilian resisters can be punished by the occupying power.

Even after effective occupation of territory, members of the armed forces who have not surrendered, organized resistance movements, and genuine national liberation movements may resist the occupation, but they must distinguish themselves from the civilian population, or at least carry their weapons openly during attacks and deployments. Any direct involvement by civilians in these hostilities would be unlawful.

Indirect support to the resistance movement, such as providing information or nonmilitary supplies, would be lawful under international law but is likely to contravene security laws passed by the occupying power, in which case those responsible would be liable to trial and punishment or to undergo restrictions on their freedom of movement. Even in that event, they would be entitled to the protection of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and collective action against them would be unlawful.

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  1. Combatant Status