Retaliation in Interational Law

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RETALIATION IN INTERATIONAL LAW. Retaliation is a nonamicable action short of war taken by one state against another in response to conduct that the retaliating state considers injurious or unfriendly. It may be forcible or peaceful. The retaliation is generally in kind when in response to a legal act, such as discrimination in tariffs, restriction of immigration, closure of ports, or legislation against aliens; such action is called retortion. Reprisal, on the other hand, is a retaliatory action that seeks redress for an illegal act, such as refusal to arbitrate or to satisfy claims, confiscation or seizure of property, or injury to citizens of the retaliating state. Reprisal is generally not limited to retaliation in kind and need not be proportioned to the offense that prompted it. Reprisal may take one of several forms: withdrawal or severance of diplomatic relations, display of force, pacific blockade, embargo, nonintercourse, bombardment, or seizure and occupation of property.

The United States has usually taken reprisals in an effort to seek redress for injuries or wrongs after exhausting diplomatic channels for settlement. In 1807 President Thomas Jefferson, with congressional approval, placed an embargo on all American vessels as a reply to the illegal treatment of American merchant vessels on the high seas by France and England. That measure having failed after a year, the president tried nonintercourse as a means of forcing the two offending nations to mend their ways. In 1914 the U.S. Navy bombarded the port of Veracruz and U.S. Marines occupied the port for several months because the U.S. believed that Mexico had failed to make adequate amends for the arrest of three American sailors. An example of retortion taken by the United States occurred in 1818 when, in response to restrictions placed on American vessels trading with British colonies in the Western Hemisphere, American ports were closed to British ships.

Retaliation takes place in wartime, too, by the belligerents who respond to the introduction by the enemy of measures deemed illegal; such actions include extending the contraband list, sowing mines, using submarines, bombing unfortified cities, invoking the doctrine of continuous voyage or ultimate destination, or blockading from long range. Finally, it may be said that fear of retaliation has played a role in determining the weapons used in warfare, as evidenced by the failure by both sides in World War II to use biological and chemical warfare.


Colbert, Evelyn Speyer. Retaliation in International Law. New York: King's Crown Press, 1948.

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See alsoForeign Policy ; General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade ; International Law ; Intervention ; Trade, Foreign .