Applicability of the international law of military occupation to the activities of international organizations

31-03-2004 Article, International Review of the Red Cross, No. 853, by Sylvain Vité

In this article the author points out the similarity between military occupations and certain activities by international organizations. It therefore examines the question whether the international of law of occupation is applicable and if so, adequately, to these activities, and more specifically to international transitional civil administrations. The experiences in Kosovo and East-Timor serve as examples and may lead to some important lessons for dealing with the current situation in Iraq.



The similarity between military occupation and certain operations by international organizations has been stressed by legal scholars. These operations involve the deployment of military forces on a given territory in an often politically and militarily highly unstable context. In the case of transitional international civilian administrations, the authorities thus installed are vested with extensive powers.

However, the formal applicability of the law of occupation to international operations is limited. Insofar as this set of rules is governed by the principle of maintaining the territorial and legislative status quo, it is ill adapted to the needs of most such operations, which often are deployed to accompany or even bring about institutional change.

In providing for institutions destined to modify the law and institutional structure of certain regions to be put in place, the Security Council’s intention was to create situations diverging from the law of occupation’s material field of application and consequently requiring identification of a special set of rules. This legal regime should be based on the law of occupation at the start of such operations, and could then be progressively adjustedto meet the specific needs of populations under international administration.


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