|By Thomas Goltz
Pillage has been a feature of nearly every conflict fought since ancient times. But rarely has it been carried out with such ruthless efficiency as in the war between Abkhaz separatists and the new government of Georgia in 1992 and 1993. One reason the conflict exploded into open war was the stunning amount of pillaging carried out by the Mkhedrioni, a quasi-State militia led by warlord Jaba Iouseliani, and the National Guard, commanded by Tengiz Kitovani.
The “White Knights” and National Guard requisitioned entire airplanes to haul their heisted televisions, radios, refrigerators, carpets, and chairs out of the Abkhaz capital of Sukhumi. The Abkhaz paid the Georgians back in spades when they managed to drive not only the Georgia “defense” forces from the territory in late September 1993, but also the vast majority of the Georgian population living in the area. Anything left behind became fair game for seizure—cars, appliances, the contents of kitchen pantries, everything.
Although the practice of pillage in conflict has been prohibited for nearly a century, few countries and cultures are exempt from the charge. The 1907 Hague Convention states: “The pillage of a town or place, even when taken by assault, is prohibited.” Prior to the Hague Convention, pillage was widely accepted as justified after assault, to compensate for the risks and losses from that method of conquest. In practice, it was often hard to distinguish between pillage after assault and requisitioning of food from peasants to sustain the army. The advent of new methods of food preservation, including canning in the nineteenth century, meant armies could carry their supplies, allowing limits to be placed on both requisitioning and pillage.
Requisitioning—the taking of “necessities” from a population for the use of an army of occupation—is legal, however. Requisitioning must be ordered by the local commander, must be proportionate to what the area can provide, must take the needs of the population into account, and should be of such a nature as not to require the population to take part in military operations against their own country. Requisitioned goods shall “as far as possible, be paid for in ready money; if not, their receipt shall be acknowledged.” However, goods possessed by the enemy’s armed forces are “subject to the laws and customs of war,” that is, they may be seized as booty.
The 1949 Geneva Conventions reduce the ban to three words: “Pillage is prohibited.” The requisitioning of food or medical supplies is permitted only for their use by the occupation forces and administrative personnel, and then “only if the requirements of the civilian population have been taken into account.” The conventions also require that fair value be paid for requisitioned goods, and set out specific restrictions on requisitioning medical facilities.
Although the ban on pillage is most often observed in the breach in contemporary conflict, matters were worse before the law was codified; Europe’s great museums testify to the grand scale of pillaging during wars of the past centuries. In many of the wars following the end of the Cold War, pillaging turned into a principal feature of the conflict. The Iraqi Army pillaged Kuwait as it departed that country under the pressure of Operation Desert Storm in early 1991, and Serb paramilitaries stripped Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina of all movable privately owned goods, fencing them in Belgrade and Novi Sad.
Not every expropriation is pillage. Not long after the Azerbaijan Army retook control of northern Karabakh in the summer of 1992 and put down the secession in that part of the Armenian enclave, I watched Azeri oil tankers pull up to the storage vats of brandy in occupied towns, drain the contents into the trucks, and drive away. The drivers told me that the brandy was to be sold for the benefit of widows and orphans, but in fact it was often used to fuel military vehicles. Not far from this scene, horse-drawn carts, piled high with refrigerators, stoves, and diverse plumbing fittings, trundled slowly through the countryside, carrying the contents from smoldering villages toward markets elsewhere.
The fortunes of war shifted, and nine months later, after ethnic Armenians had seized the Azeri province of Kelbajar, a British colleague visiting Stepanakert, the self-proclaimed capital of the breakaway province, came upon a large “used refrigerator and television” market. The Armenians began the systematic removal of window and door frames as they went house to house in occupied Azeri cities such as Agdam, Fizuli, and Zangelan.
Decanting the brandy, especially when it was being used by the fuel-starved Armenians was probably not pillage. Most likely it was public property, and the Azeris could claim to be the State. A State has the right to declare a state of emergency or martial law and requisition goods needed to sustain the civilian population. Indeed, if used in the war effort, as it was to fuel tanks, the seized brandy was legitimate war booty.
The refrigerators and televisions, windows and door frames, on the other hand, are undoubtedly a case of pillage, for they were stolen from private civilian homes and not requisitioned by proper military procedures for any proper military purpose. The rule of thumb is that in an international conflict, any goods seized without proper procedure have been pillaged; in an internal conflict, to determine whether an army has pillaged, it is thus important to find out first whether the goods are private or State property. If the internal party has a claim to being the government of the region, then it has a claim to the goods owned by the State.
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