Dictionary of Gross Human Rights Violations
Giving quarter is a concept within international humanitarian law that means that when an individual surrenders, they must be “given quarter” and accepted as being hors de combat (outside of combat). Thus, they must not be fired upon or otherwise killed or abused. The surrendered individuals are to be considered prisoners of war and are protected by the Third Geneva Convention of August 12, 1949 (Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War). To issue an order to not give quarter, i.e. to “take no prisoners,” is a fundamental violation of the principles of international humanitarian law and is considered to be a war crime. According to Article 40 of Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions, soldiers who have clearly expressed an “intention to surrender” (for example by raising their arms, waving a white flag, etc.) are considered to be hors de combat and they must be given quarter (i.e. allowed to peacefully surrender). Common Article 3 of the four Geneva Conventions stipulates that, in the case of internal armed conflicts, surrendering soldiers must be “treated humanely.”
Giving quarter originally meant to give a prisoner of war “shelter” but the phrase has evolved to mean respecting a prisoner of war’s right to survival. The principle of giving quarter has deep historical foundations but was first encoded as law in the modern era with the Lieber Code in 1863. The Lieber Code, a set of regulations governing the conduct of armed combat by Union forces in the American Civil War, prohibited giving no quarter. Later refinements of the principle eliminated the “great straits provision” which allowed soldiers to give no quarter when their “own salvation” made taking prisoners unfeasible. The 1949 Geneva Conventions made giving no quarter a grave breach of the laws of international armed conflict.
The Elements of Crimes of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court stipulates that in order for the war crime of denying quarter to occur the individual must have issued an order for no prisoners to be taken. Moreover, the person issuing the order must be in a position of effective command and control. Thus, the issuance of an order to deny quarter is a war crime in and of itself. The denial of quarter in international armed conflicts is a war crime under Article 8 (2)(b)(xii) of the Rome Statute, and in non-international armed conflicts under 8 (2)(e)(x).