Pillage—the act of looting or plundering property—has long been associated as a justifiable reward for victory and compensation for assuming the risks of combat. Pillage is banned under international law. The Hague Convention of 1907 declared: “The pillage of a town or place, even when taken by assault, is prohibited.” The GENEVA CONVENTIONS of 1949 reaffirmed the ban on pillage in the most succinct and emphatic way possible: “Pillage is prohibited.” During World War II the Nazis carried out a campaign of pillage possibly unrivaled in history, looting the patrimony of the nations they conquered and making off with 346 Physicians for Human Rights thousands of artistic treasures from Europe’s great museums.
Even American troops were not immune from the temptation of pillage. It was only in 2004 that the U.S. government agreed to settle a lawsuit brought by Hungarian Jews over the looting of their valuables by American soldiers during World War II. The pillaged property included gold, silver, paintings, and furs, originally stolen from Jews by the Nazis before the end of the war. U.S. forces intercepted a train shipment of the goods but refused to turn it over to the original owners, who had survived the CONCENTRATION CAMPS, on the grounds that the property and valuables were “unidentifiable.” Some of the items were appropriated by the U.S. Army and sold to soldiers, according to a 1999 report by the Presidential Advisory Commission on Holocaust Assets in the United States. In 2005 the U.S. government reached a settlement with the victims of the theft for $25 million.
International law distinguishes between pillage, which is defined as looting or plunder, and requisitioning, which is defined as the taking of “necessities” from a population for the use of an army of occupation. Until canning was invented, allowing armies to preserve and carry their food, armies would frequently seize food and provisions from the conquered populations. However, requisitioning has become more limited now that armies are better able to bring their own supplies with them. The Geneva Conventions specify that an army is legitimately entitled to requisition food or medical supplies but under two conditions: (1) the provisions must be intended only for the use of occupation forces—that is, the goods cannot be acquired for enrichment or profit, and (2) requisitioning can take place “only if the requirements of the civilian population have been taken into account.” Fair value must be paid for the goods, in cash if possible. Nonetheless, international law does recognize that goods may be taken by an army “subject to the laws and customs of war,” which can be interpreted as a justified basis under certain circumstances for seizing booty.
In spite of international laws outlawing pillage, the practice has continued: Iraqi forces pillaged Kuwait just before they were forced to withdraw by coalition forces in 1991, and Serb forces and militia groups pillaged Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia during the Bosnian War in the early 1990s as well as Kosovo during the 1999 war in that breakaway province.Tags: american troops, concentration camps, pillaged property, us army