Collective punishment

Collective punishment is a form of retaliation whereby a suspected perpetrator's family members, friends, acquaintances, sect, neighbors or entire ethnic group is targeted. The punished group may often have no direct association with the other individuals or groups, or direct control over their actions. In times of war and armed conflict, collective punishment has resulted in atrocities, and is a violation of the laws of war and the Geneva Conventions.[1] Historically, occupying powers have used collective punishment to retaliate against and deter attacks on their forces by Resistance movements (such as destroying entire towns and villages which were believed to have harboured or aided such resistance movements).


2nd century BC

During the Qin Dynasty of China (221–207 BC), emperor Qin Shi Huang upheld his rule by enforcing strict laws, with the most serious of crimes, such as treason, punishable by what is known as nine familial exterminations – this involved the execution of the perpetrator's entire families as well as the perpetrators themselves, where the members are categorized into nine groups. The process of familial extermination was carried on by subsequent Chinese dynasties for serious crimes, with a significant number of recorded sentences during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), until the punishment was officially repealed by the government of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1912) in 1905.

9th–15th centuries

In the Tithing, groups of ten men swearing the Frankpledge, the compulsory sharing of responsibility and punishment, was in use at least since the time of Alfred the Great in the 9th century. The Statute of Winchester of 1285 provided that "the whole hundred … shall be answerable" for any theft or robbery.

16th century

During the Ming dynasty of China, 16 palace women attempted to assassinate the Jiajing Emperor. All were sentenced to death by slow slicing. Ten members of the women's families were also beheaded, while a further 20 were enslaved and gifted to ministers.[2]

18th century

The Intolerable Acts were seen as a collective punishment of Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party.

19th century

The principle of collective punishment was laid out by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman in his Special Field Order 120, November 9, 1864, which laid out the rules for his "March to the sea" in the American Civil War:

V. To army corps commanders alone is entrusted the power to destroy mills, houses, cotton-gins, etc..., and for them this general principle is laid down: In districts and neighborhoods where the army is unmolested, no destruction of such property should be permitted; but should guerrillas or bushwhackers molest our march, or should the inhabitants burn bridges, obstruct roads, or otherwise manifest local hostility, then army commanders should order and enforce a devastation more or less relentless according to the measure of such hostility.[3]

British forces in the Boer Wars and the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War justified such actions as being in accord with the laws of war then in force.[4]

20th century

United States

In 1906, 167 black U.S. soldiers stationed in Brownsville, Texas, were dishonorably discharged on orders of President Theodore Roosevelt in response to the shooting of two white citizens in the middle of the night of August 13, 1906. One man was killed and the other, a police lieutenant, was injured and it was never discovered who the shooter(s) were, though they were presumed to have been members of the nearby Fort Brown. The soldiers of Companies Bravo, Charlie, and Delta of the 25th infantry regiment, many of whom served in the Philippines and Cuba during America's war with Spain, were punished for the crime collectively and were denied army pensions.[5]

World War I

During the First World War, the German invasion of Belgium was marked by numerous acts of collective punishment, in response to real or perceived acts of resistance. Some 6,000 civilians were killed, and 25,000 homes burned during this period.[6]:13

Russian Revolution

During the 1917 uprising against Nicholas II during World War I, many of Nicholas' distant relatives in Russia were killed by revolutionaries during that year's uprising. In July 1918, less than a year after the October revolution that overthrew Alexander Kerensky's Russian Provisional Government and early in the Russian Civil War that began shortly afterwards, Nicholas II and his immediate family and remaining servants were shot by their captors.

World War II

By Germany

During the Nazi occupation of Poland, the Germans applied collective responsibility: any kind of help given to a person of Jewish faith or origin was punishable by death, and that not only for the rescuers themselves but also for their families.[7][8][9] This was widely publicized by the Germans.[10][11] During the occupation, for every German killed by a Pole, 100–400 Poles were shot in retribution.[12] Communities were held collectively responsible for the purported Polish counter-attacks against the invading German troops. Mass executions of roundup (pol: łapanka) hostages were conducted every single day during the Wehrmacht advance across Poland in September 1939 and thereafter.[13] Poland lost over 5 million citizens during the occupation by Nazi Germany, mostly civilians.[14]

Germany also applied collective punishment elsewhere. In the summer of 1941, Nazi troops executed several hundred people in Kondomari, Alikianos, Kandanos and elsewhere in retaliation for the participation of Cretan civilians in the Battle of Crete. During its occupation by the Axis from 1941 to 1944, Greece suffered a remarkably high death toll due to reprisals against the support and involvement of the population in the Resistance. Large-scale massacres were carried out in places such as Domeniko, Kommeno, Viannos, Lyngiades, Kali Sykia, Drakeia, Kalavryta, Mesovouno, Damasta, Distomo, Kedros, Chortiatis and many others. Entire villages (e.g. Anogeia, Vorizia, Magarikari, Kamares, Lochria), were also pillaged and burnt.

In Yugoslavia (now Serbia), Nazi troops killed 434 men in three villages near Kragujevac on October 19, 1941 as punishment for previous actions of the Serbian resistance movement. In the next two days, the Nazis also killed more than 13,000 people in Kraljevo, Kragujevac, and Sumarice, including 300 students from Kragujevac First High School. In 1942, the Germans destroyed the village of Lidice, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) killing 340 inhabitants as collective punishment or reprisal for that year's assassination of Reinhard Heydrich by nearby commandos (the village Ležáky was also destroyed in retribution). In the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane 642 of its inhabitants – men, women, and children – were slaughtered by the German Waffen-SS in 1944, as were 335 Italians in that same year's Ardeatine massacre in caves outside Rome.[15] In the Dutch village of Putten[16] and the Italian villages of Sant'Anna di Stazzema[17] and Marzabotto,[18] as well as in the Soviet village of Kortelisy[19] (in what is now Ukraine), large-scale reprisal killings were carried out by the Germans. The Massacre of Borovë occurred on July 9, 1943, in the village of Borovë, in southeastern Albania. German forces killed 107 civilians as a reprisal for a partisan attack on a German convoy the days before. In Lithuania, on June 3, 1944, after attack of Soviet partisans on a group of Germans in a nearby forest, a punishment squadron burned alive 119 people (including 49 children under age of 16) – almost all inhabitants of village of Pirčiupiai.

Against Germany

The expulsion of German speaking population groups after World War II by the Soviet Union, Poland and Czechoslovakia represent one of the greatest examples of collective punishment in terms of the number of victims. The goal was to punish the Germans;[20][21][22] the Allies declared them collectively guilty of Nazi war crimes.[23][24][25][26] In the US and UK the ideas of German collective guilt and collective punishment originated not with the US and British people, but on higher policy levels.[27] Not until late in the war did the US public assign collective responsibility to the German people.[27]

British Empire

According to The New York Times, the British planned "'collective punishment' for aiding Reds, rewards and more troops" in Malaya in 1951.[28] The British used collective punishment as an official policy to suppress the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya in 1952.[29] In 1956, Britain officially used collective punishment in Cyprus in the form of evicting families from their homes and closing shops anywhere British soldiers and police had been murdered, to obtain information about the identities of the attackers.[30] Today, it is considered by most nations contradictory to the modern concept of due process, where each individual receives separate treatment based on their own role(s) in the crime in question. Article 33 of the Fourth Geneva Convention specifically forbids collective punishment.


Joseph Stalin's mass deportations of many nationalities of the USSR to remote regions (including the Chechens, Crimean Tatars, Volga Germans and many others) is an example of officially orchestrated collective punishment.

The partial removal of potentially trouble-making ethnic groups was a technique used consistently by Stalin during his career: Poles (1939–41 and 1944–45), Romanians (1941 and 1944–53), Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians (1941 and 1945–49), Volga Germans (1941), Chechens, and Ingushes (1944). Shortly before, during and immediately after World War II, Stalin conducted a series of deportations on a huge scale which profoundly affected the ethnic map of the Soviet Union.[31] It is estimated that between 1941 and 1949 nearly 3.3 million were deported to Siberia and the Central Asian republics.[32] By some estimates up to 43% of the resettled population died of diseases and malnutrition.[33]

The deportations started with Poles from Belarus, Ukraine and European Russia (see Poles in the former Soviet Union) 1932–36. Koreans in the Russian Far East were deported in 1937 (see Deportation of Koreans in the Soviet Union). After the Soviet invasion of Poland following the corresponding German invasion that marked the start of World War II in 1939, the Soviet Union annexed eastern parts (so-called "Kresy") of the Second Polish Republic. During 1939–41 1.45 million people inhabiting the region were deported by the Soviet regime, of whom 63% were Poles, and 7% were Jews.[34] The same followed in the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.[35] More than 200,000 people are estimated to have been deported from the Baltic in 1940–1953. 10% of the entire adult Baltic population was deported or sent to labor camps.[36][37] (see June deportation, Operation Priboi, Soviet deportations from Estonia) Volga Germans[38] and seven (overwhelmingly Turkic or non-Slavic) nationalities of the Crimea and the northern Caucasus were deported: the Crimean Tatars,[39] Kalmyks, Chechens,[40] Ingush, Balkars, Karachays, and Meskhetian Turks. All Crimean Tatars were deported en masse, in a form of collective punishment.

Pogroms may be considered examples of unofficial collective punishment which resemble rioting. About 14 million East Germans were moved out of what was Germany; three million of them died.


Black January was a massacre of civilians committed by the Red Army in the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic in 1990. The Human Rights Watch report entitled "Black January in Azerbaijan" states: "Indeed, the violence used by the Soviet Army on the night of January 19–20 was so out of proportion to the resistance offered by Azerbaijanis as to constitute an exercise in collective punishment."[41]

21st century

North Korea

In North Korea, political prisoners are sent to the Kwan-li-so concentration camps along with their relatives without any fair trial.[42] North Korean citizens convicted of more serious political crimes are sentenced to life imprisonment, and the summary two generations of their family (children and grandchildren) will be born in the camps as part of the "3 generations of punishment" policy instigated by state founder Kim Il-Sung in 1948.[43] North Korea's political penal labor colonies, transliterated kwalliso or kwan-li-so, constitute one of three forms of political imprisonment in the country, the other two being what Hawk (2012)[44] translates as "short-term detention/forced-labor centers"[45] and "long-term prison labor camps"[46] for misdemeanor and felony offences respectively. In total, there are an estimated 150,000 to 200,000 political prisoners housed within the North Korean imprisonment system.[44] In contrast to these other systems, the condemned are sent there without any form of judicial process as are their immediate three generations of family members as kin punishment. North Korea's kwalliso consist of a series of sprawling encampments measuring kilometers long and kilometers wide. The number of these encampments has varied over time. They are located mainly in the valleys between high mountains, mostly in the northern provinces of North Korea. There are between 5,000 and 50,000 prisoners per kwalliso, totaling perhaps some 150,000 to 200,000 prisoners throughout North Korea. The kwalliso are usually surrounded at their outer perimeters by barbed-wire fences punctuated with guard towers and patrolled by heavily armed guards. The encampments include self-contained closed "village" compounds for single persons, usually the alleged wrongdoers, and other closed, fenced-in "villages" for the extended families of the wrongdoers.


The current blockade of Gaza has been criticized by the International Committee of the Red Cross, in a United Nations report, and by various other organisations as collective punishment aimed at the Palestinians.[47][48][49] In Alamarin v. IDF Commander in Gaza Strip the Israeli High Court of Justice held that the homes of Palestinians who have committed violent acts may be demolished under the Defence (Emergency) Regulations, even if the residence has other inhabitants who are unconnected to the crime.[50]


The 1984 anti-Sikh riots or the 1984 Sikh Massacre was a riot directed against Sikhs in India, by anti-Sikh mobs, in response to the assassination of Indira Gandhi by her Sikh bodyguards. This caused more than 3000 deaths. The CBI is of the opinion that the acts of violence were well organized with support from the officials in the Delhi police and central government at the time, headed by Indira Gandhi's son, Rajiv Gandhi. Rajiv, a Congress party member who was sworn in as the Prime Minister after his mother's death, when asked about the riots said "When a big tree falls, the earth shakes".

In 2011, Human Rights Watch reported the Government of India had "yet to prosecute those responsible for the mass killings". The 2011 WikiLeaks cable leaks revealed that the United States was convinced regarding the complicity of the Indian government led by the Indian National Congress in the riots, and termed it as "opportunism" and "hatred" of the Congress government against Sikhs. Also in 2011, a new set of mass graves were discovered in Haryana, and Human Rights Watch reported that "Widespread anti-Sikh attacks in Haryana were part of broader revenge attacks" in India.


On May 20, 2008, the Pakistan Army conducted collective punishment against a village called Spinkai, located in the frontier province of Pakistan. The operation was called 'zalzala', which is Arabic for earthquake. At first, the Pakistan Army swept through with helicopter gunships, artillery and tanks. After four days of heavy fighting, 25 militants and six soldiers died. The rest of the militants retreated up the valley. After the capture of the village the army discovered bomb factories, detonation-ready suicide jackets and schools for teenage suicide bombers.[51]

The Pakistan Army immediately decided to punish the village for harboring the Taliban and allowing the militants to operate in and from the village to conduct further terror attacks in Pakistan. Bulldozers and explosives experts turned Spinkai's bazaar into a mile-long pile of rubble.[52] Petrol stations, shops, and even parts of the hospital were leveled or blown up. The villagers were forbidden from returning to their homes.

Pakistani commanders, who were speaking to the media, insisted they had been merciful in their application of "collective punishment" – a practice invented by the British who demarcated the tribal areas over a century ago.

South Africa

South Africa still retains the Apartheid-era law of common purpose, by which those who make up part of a group can be punished for the crimes of other group members, even if they were not themselves actively involved. In August 2012 this came to public attention when 270 miners were threatened with prosecution for participating in a demonstration. During the demonstration at the Marikana mine, 34 miners were shot by police. Many of the miners were armed. When prosecutors said they would pursue charges against other miners who were part of the protest, there was a public outcry.[53]


Throughout most of Syria's ongoing civil war, collective punishment has been a recurring method used by the Syrian government to quell opposition cities and suburbs throughout the country, whereby entire cities are besieged, shelled, and destroyed if that city is deemed as pro-opposition.

Upon retaking the capital Damascus after the Battle of Damascus (2012), the Syrian government began a campaign of collective punishment against Sunni suburbs in-and-around the capital which had supported FSA presence in their neighborhoods.[54][55]

In opposition-controlled cities and districts in Aleppo province and Aleppo city, reports indicate that the Syrian government is attacking civilians at bread bakeries with artillery rounds and rockets, with the reports indicating that the bakeries were shelled indiscriminately.[56][57] HRW said these are war crimes, as the only military targets wherever the few rebels manning the bakeries, and that dozens of civilians were killed.[58]

In Idlib province in the northwest of the country, entire cities were shelled and bombed for sheltering opposition activists and rebels, with the victims mostly civilians, along with heavy financial losses.[59]


Rather than attempt to discover some "contra-causal free will", modern philosophers will usually use notions of intention to establish individual moral responsibility. This Kantian approach may not be the only way to assess responsibility, especially considering groups may need a unique approach to individuals.[60] For instance, there is the issue that consistent (not hypocritical) individuals may nevertheless experience a discursive dilemma when they try to act as a group.

Philosopher Kenneth Shockley suggests we focus on group faults and the punishments that would bring change. Punishments, for a group, might include: full or partial disbanding, weakening bonds between members, or de-institutionalizing some of the group's norms. Neta Crawford says groups can be expected to change, but also apologize and make amends. That might mean groups must forfeit important parts of themselves.[60] In this case, groups are being held responsible for organizing or incentivizing harmful behaviors. Shockley calls this the group's "coordinating control" over members. He says group responsibility can mitigate individual responsibility.[60]

See also


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  4. "The laws of war as to conquered territory" by William Miller Collier, New York Times, November 29, 1914, p. SM6
  5. "The Brownsville Raid" by John D. Weaver
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  19. Ulf Brunnbauer, Michael G. Esch, Holm Sundhaussen, Definitionsmacht, Utopie, Vergeltung, p. 91
  20. The Expulsion of 'German' Communities from Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War Archived October 1, 2009, at the Wayback Machine, Steffen Prauser and Arfon Rees, European University Institute, Florence. HEC No. 2004/1. p. 6
  21. Zybura, p. 202
  22. The Expulsion of 'German' Communities from Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War Archived October 1, 2009, at the Wayback Machine, Steffen Prauser and Arfon Rees, European University Institute, Florence. HEC No. 2004/1. p. 5
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  24. Karl Cordell, Andrzej Antoszewski, Poland and the European Union, 2000, p. 166, ISBN 0-415-23885-4, ISBN 978-0-415-23885-4 ' (Situation in Poland) "Almost all Germans were held personally responsible for the policies of the Nazi party"
  25. Arie Marcelo Kacowicz, Pawel Lutomski, Population resettlement in international conflicts: a comparative study, Lexington Books, 2007, pp.101–02. ISBN 0-7391-1607-X
  26. Francis R. Nicosia, Jonathan Huener "Business and industry in Nazi Germany", p.130,131
  27. "British to step up Malaya campaign; 1951 plans include 'collective punishment' for aiding Reds, rewards and more troops" New York Times, December 17, 1950, p 12
  28. "Labor's censure over Kenya fails" New York Times, December 17, 1952, p16
  29. Britain punishes Cypriote balking in informer role" New York Times, March 17, 1956, p1
  30. "The Scale and Nature of German and Soviet Repression and Mass Killings, 1930–45" (PDF).
  31. Philip Boobbyer (2000). The Stalin Era. Psychology Press. p. 130. ISBN 978-0-415-18298-0.
  32. "Soviet Transit, Camp, and Deportation Death Rates". Retrieved December 18, 2017.
  33. Poland's Holocaust, Tadeusz Piotrowski, 1998 ISBN 0-7864-0371-3, p. 14
  34. Soviet Mass Deportations from Latvia Archived July 9, 2007, at the Wayback Machine
  35. The Baltic States Archived April 20, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
  36. "Taig". Archived from the original on March 1, 2001. Retrieved January 21, 2016.
  37. Deportation Archived August 6, 2009, at the Wayback Machine
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  40. FS. "Embassy of the Republic of Azerbaijanin Romania".
  41. ""Escapee Tells of Horrors in North Korean Prison Camp", Washington Post, December 11, 2008". The Washington Post. December 11, 2008. Retrieved August 23, 2010.
  42. Kaechon internment camp
  43. Hawk, David. "The Hidden Gulag – Exposing North Korea's Prison Camps" (PDF). The Committee for Human Rights in North Korea. Retrieved September 21, 2012.
  44. Korean: 집결소; Hanja: 集結 ; RR: jipgyeolso; MR: chipkyŏlso, literally "place(s) of gathering"
  45. Korean: 교화소; Hanja:  ; RR: gyohwaso; MR: kyohwaso, literally "place(s) of reeducation"
  46. "UN condemns 'war crimes' in Gaza". BBC News. September 16, 2009.
  47. "ICRC says Israel's Gaza blockade breaks law". BBC News. June 14, 2010.
  48. "US Congress freeze on $200m Palestinian aid criticised". BBC News. October 4, 2011.
  49. HCJ 2722/92 Alamarin v. IDF Commander in the Gaza Strip 46(3) PD 693 (1992) .
  50. Declan Walsh (May 20, 2008). "Demolished by the Pakistan army: the frontier village punished for harboring the Taliban". The Guardian. London. Retrieved June 30, 2008.
  51. "In pictures: Pakistan's most feared militant". BBC News ( May 27, 2008. Retrieved June 30, 2008.
  52. "Marikana murder charges: South Africa minister wants explanation". BBC. August 31, 2012. Retrieved August 31, 2012.
  53. "Syria army destroys houses in "collective punishment"". Reuters. September 3, 2012.
  54. accessdate=2012-09-26
  56. "Syria: Government Attacking Bread Lines". Huffington Post. August 30, 2012.
  57. 0. "Syrian fighters in Aleppo form 'Revolutionary Transitional Council'". Archived from the original on September 6, 2012. Retrieved December 18, 2017.
  58. Idlib town suffers heavy bombing. September 12, 2012. Retrieved January 21, 2016 via YouTube.
  59. Collective Responsibility. At Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. First published Mon August 8, 2005; substantive revision Mon June 14, 2010
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