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Summary execution

Sixteen blindfolded Yugoslav Partisans await summary execution by German forces in Serbia, 20 August 1941. A German soldier who refused to take part was executed alongside them

A summary execution is an guerrilla warfare, counter-insurgency, terrorism, and any other situation which involves a breakdown of the normal procedures for handling accused prisoners, civilian or military.


  • Civilian jurisdiction 1
  • Military jurisdiction 2
    • Prisoners of war 2.1
    • Exceptions to prisoners of war status 2.2
    • Other cases 2.3
    • Under martial law 2.4
  • Notable cases of summary executions 3
    • France 3.1
    • United Kingdom 3.2
    • Soviet Russia 3.3
    • Free French Army 3.4
    • Nazi Germany 3.5
      • July 20 Plot 3.5.1
      • Kriegsmarine jurisdiction 3.5.2
    • Indonesia 3.6
    • Cuba 3.7
    • Vietnam 3.8
    • Romania 3.9
    • Afghanistan 3.10
    • Philippines 3.11
    • Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant 3.12
  • References 4
  • See also 5

Civilian jurisdiction

In nearly all civilian jurisdictions, summary execution is illegal, as it violates the right of the accused to a fair trial. Almost all constitutions or legal systems based on common law have prohibited execution without the decision and sentence of a competent judge, and the UN's International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) has declared the same:

Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law. No man shall be deprived of his life arbitrarily. [The death] penalty can only be carried out pursuant to a final judgment rendered by a competent court.

In practice, though, extrajudicial killings have been performed by police and domestic forces in various countries and times, sometimes under martial law. It is also performed by armed bands fighting against governments and common citizens.

Military jurisdiction

Under military law, summary execution is illegal in almost all circumstances, as a military tribunal would be the competent judge needed to determine guilt and declare a sentence of death. However, there are certain exceptions to this rule in emergencies and warfare where summary execution is legal.

Prisoners of war

Major treaties such as the Geneva Conventions and Hague Conventions, and customary international law from history, protect the rights of captured regular and irregular enemy soldiers, along with civilians of enemy states. Prisoners-of-war (POWs) must be treated in carefully defined ways which definitively ban summary execution, as the Second Additional Protocol of the Geneva Conventions (1977) states:

"No sentence shall be passed and no penalty shall be executed on a person found guilty of an offence except pursuant to a conviction pronounced by a court offering the essential guarantees of independence and impartiality." – Second Protocol of the Geneva Conventions (1977) Article 6.2.
A mass execution of 56 Polish hostages in Bochnia, near Kraków, following the invasion, December 18, 1939

Exceptions to prisoners of war status

However, some classes of combatants may not be accorded POW status, though that definition has broadened to cover more classes of combatants over time. In the past, summary execution of pirates, spies, and francs-tireurs[2] have been performed and considered legal under existing international law.[3] Francs-tireurs (a term originating in the Franco-Prussian War) are enemy civilians or militia who continue to fight in territory occupied by a warring party and do not wear military uniforms, and may otherwise be known as guerrillas, partisans, insurgents, etc.

Though these soldiers could be legally jailed or executed by most armies a century ago, the experience of World War II influenced nations occupied by foreign forces to change the law to protect this group. Many of the post-war victors, such as France, Poland, and the USSR, had the experience of resistance fighters being summarily executed by the Axis if they were captured. The war also influenced them to make sure that commandos and other special forces who were caught deep behind enemy lines would be protected as POWs, rather than summarily executed as Hitler decreed through his 1942 Commando Order.

Polish people being executed by a German firing squad in Kórnik, October 1939

The Commando Order was issued by Adolf Hitler on 18 October 1942 stating that all Allied commandos encountered by German forces in Europe and Africa should be killed immediately without trial, even in proper uniforms or if they attempted to surrender. Any commando or small group of commandos or a similar unit, agents, and saboteurs not in proper uniforms, who fell into the hands of the German military forces by some means other than direct combat (through the police in occupied territories, for instance) were to be handed over immediately to the Sicherheitsdienst (SD, Security Service). The order, which was issued in secret, made it clear that failure to carry out these orders by any commander or officer would be considered to be an act of negligence punishable under German military law.[4] This was in fact the second "Commando Order",[5] the first being issued by Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt on 21 July 1942, stipulating that parachutists should be handed over to the Gestapo.[6] Shortly after World War II, at the Nuremberg Trials, the Commando Order was found to be a direct breach of the laws of war, and German officers who carried out illegal executions under the Commando Order were found guilty of war crimes.

According to Article 4 of the Third Geneva Convention of 1949, irregular forces are entitled to prisoner of war status provided that they are commanded by a person responsible for his subordinates, have a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance, carry arms openly, and conduct their operations in accordance with the laws and customs of war. If they do not meet all of these, they may be considered francs-tireurs (in the original sense of "illegal combatant") and punished as criminals in a military jurisdiction, which may include summary execution.

Soldiers who are wearing uniforms of the opposing army after the start of combat may be considered illegal combatants and subject to summary execution. Many armies have performed this kind of false flag ruse in the past, including both German and U.S. special forces during World War II. However, if soldiers remove their disguises and put on proper insignia before the start of combat in such an operation, they are considered legal combatants and must be treated as prisoners-of-war if captured. This distinction was settled in the post-WWII trial of Otto Skorzeny, who led Operation Greif, an infiltration mission in which German commandos wore U.S. uniforms to infiltrate U.S. lines but removed them before actual combat.

Other cases

A German soldier using a flamethrower in Russia

Flamethrower operators were rarely taken prisoner, especially when their target survived an attack by the weapon; captured flamethrower users were in some cases summarily executed.[7] The same can be said for snipers.

Under martial law

Within a state's policy, martial law may be declared in emergencies such as invasions or insurrections, and in such a case constitutionally protected rights would be suspended. Depending on a state's interpretation of martial law, this may allow police or military forces to decide and carry out punishments that include death on its own citizens, in order to restore lawful authority or for other vital reasons.

Note that this would not include killing a suspect who is directly endangering another's life, which police can always legally do, but rather, executing a suspect under one's control as a punishment. Proving that a summary execution fell under this legal exception would be exceptionally difficult, as one would have to show why a judgment and sentence of death absolutely needed to be meted out on the spot. Hence, these kinds of extraordinary acts are almost always seen as illegal violations of human rights. In 2009, summary executions passed under martial law in the Philippines resulted in protests.[8]

Finally, it is theoretically legal for a military to punish its own soldiers with summary executions in emergency situations that cannot wait for trial by military tribunal, such as desertion in the face of the enemy.

Notable cases of summary executions


During the Reign of Terror of the French Revolution, more than 25,000 summary executions occurred across France.

United Kingdom

In an incident involving the sinking of a German submarine in 1915 Godfrey Herbert, commanding officer of the Q-ship Baralong, ordered the surviving German sailors to be summarily executed.

In September 2015, Prime Minister David Cameron authorised the extrajudicial killing of British citizen Reyaad Khan in Syria.[9]

Soviet Russia

After the overthrow of the Czar, large numbers of officers of the Russian Army were separated from captured troops and executed; even some collaborators that had supported the overthrow of the Czar were executed by the revolutionaries.

Free French Army

General Philip Leclerc, the French divisional commander who had served under the Americans, was presented with a defiant group of 11-12 captured Charlemagne Division men, Frenchmen who had enlisted in the Waffen-SS.[10] The Free French General immediately asked them why they wore a German uniform, to which one of them replied by asking the General why he wore an American one (the Free French wore modified US army uniforms). The group of French Waffen-SS men was later executed without any form of military tribunal procedure.[11]

Nazi Germany

July 20 Plot

In response to the failed plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler on July 20, 1944, many of the alleged conspirators (including the would-be assassin Claus von Stauffenberg) were arrested, sentenced to death, and executed without public trial.

Kriegsmarine jurisdiction

On January 30, 1945, a male refugee, desperate to escape the sinking MV Wilhelm Gustloff, refused to accept the precedence of women and children in the ship's evacuation. He attempted to force his way onto one of the lifeboats. After ignoring several warnings from those who were restraining him, he was summarily executed by a ship's officer.


The South Sulawesi Campaign (December 10, 1946 – February 21, 1947) was a campaign of the Indonesian National Revolution. It pitted local Indonesian Republicans on the island of Sulawesi against the returning Dutch who sought to re-assert their authority. The Dutch counter-insurgency offensive was masterminded by the controversial Raymond Westerling, a Captain in the KNIL (Royal Netherlands East Indies Army). Westerling's operation, which started in December 1946 and ended in February 1947, succeeded in eliminating the insurgency and undermining local support for the Republicans by instituting summary executions of suspected enemy fighters.


On January 12, 1959, following the Cuban Revolution, 71 men were executed by the new government and buried in a mass grave.[12] Although some were afforded brief trials, at least nine were executed without trial after Raúl Castro declared that the trials were proceeding too slowly.[13] The execution of one man, Enrique Despaigne, was delayed three hours so it could be filmed by a camera crew.[14] Later that year, after 45 of his opponents were acquitted by the courts, Fidel Castro disregarded the verdicts and ordered the men shot.[13]


On February 1, 1968, during the Vietnam War, Nguyễn Văn Lém, a Viet Cong member, was summarily executed by Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, the chief of the national police, in front of Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams, who later won the Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography for the photo. Nguyen Van Lem was captured in Saigon dressed as a civilian.


On December 17, 1989, under orders of General Victor Stănculescu on charges of genocide and sabotage of the Romanian economy.[16] Ceaușescu and his wife were then shot by a firing squad.[17][18] The approximate one hour court session was broadcast on television throughout the country that day.[19]


On November 4, 2008, Abdul Salam poured gasoline on civilian anthropologist Paula Loyd and set her on fire. In retribution, fellow contractor Don Ayala shot and killed Salam, who had been handcuffed. Ayala was charged with second-degree murder; he pleaded guilty to voluntary manslaughter and was sentenced to five years of probation and a $12,500 fine. Loyd died in the hospital two months after the event.[20]

On December 27, 2012, Afghan television broadcast a video showing the summary execution of Mohammed Jan, an Afghan national army soldier, by Taliban forces.[21] Earlier that month, a UN report cited the summary execution of a woman accused of adultery by the Taliban.[22]


Extrajudicial killings in the Philippines are referred to as salvage in Philippine English.[23]

Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant

In the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, (aka: ISIS, ISIL, IS, and Daesh), there have been many summary beheadings.


  1. ^ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR – 1966, Article 6.1).
  2. ^ Ticehurst R (1997-04-30). The Martens clause and the laws of armed conflict. Int Rev RC #317, @ pp 125–134. Seen 2010-06-30.
  3. ^ Law Of The Sea.
  4. ^ USGPO Translation of order,  .
  5. ^ "The Commando Order", History learning site, UK .
  6. ^ CAB/129/28, British National Archives, ... under which parachutists who were taken prisoner not in connection with battle actions were to be transferred to the Gestapo by whom they were, in fact, killed. 
  7. ^
  8. ^ Protest demands priority for Martial Law victims. Sun Star Davao. May 23, 2009. Accessed November 27, 2009.
  9. ^
  10. ^ This incident took place 8 May 1945, at Bad Reichenhall in Bavaria
  11. ^ Trigg, Jonathan (2009). Hitler's Gauls: The History of the 33rd Waffen Division Charlemagne. History Publishing Group. p. 161.  
  12. ^
  13. ^ a b,5679019
  14. ^
  15. ^ Ratesh, N. (1991). Romania: The Entangled Revolution. Praeger Publishers.
  16. ^
  17. ^ Boyes, Roger (24 December 2009). "Ceausescu looked in my eyes and he knew that he was going to die".  
  18. ^ "'"Ceausescu execution 'avoided mob lynching. BBC News. December 25, 2009. 
  19. ^ "Trial and Execution: The Dramatic Deaths of Nicolae and Elena Ceausescu". Huffington Post. December 23, 2009. 
  20. ^ White, Josh (May 9, 2009). "No Jail for Contractor in Killing of Man Who Set American Afire in Afghanistan".  
  21. ^ Nordland, Rod (December 28, 2012). "Video Shown of Apparent Execution of Afghan Soldier".  
  22. ^
  23. ^

See also

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