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The word contraband, reported in English since 1529, from Medieval French contrebande "a smuggling," denotes any item which, relating to its nature, is illegal to be possessed or sold.

Used for goods that by their nature, e.g. too dangerous or offensive in the eyes of the legislator (those are termed contraband in se) are forbidden, and for so-called derivative contraband, i.e. goods that may normally be owned but are liable to be seized because they were used in committing an unlawful act and hence begot illegally, such as:

  • Smuggling goods
  • stolen goods – knowingly participating in their trade is an offense in itself, called fencing
  • the fruits of fraud, forgery etc.
The word is also used as an adjective, again meaning 'distributed or sold illicitly'.

Law of armed conflict

File:Contraband weapons in Afghanistan.jpg
Contraband weapons seized by an Afghan and coalition security force during an offensive security operation in Nangarhar. The security force was in pursuit of the primary Taliban facilitator for foreign fighters and attacks against high interest targets within eastern Afghanistan. (DoD photo)

In international law, contraband means goods which are ultimately destined for territory under the control of the enemy and which may be susceptible for use in armed conflict.[1] Traditionally, contraband is classified into two categories, absolute contraband and conditional contraband. The former category includes arms, munitions, and various materials, such as chemicals and certain types of machinery that may be used directly to wage war or be converted into instruments of war.

Conditional contraband, formerly known as occasional contraband, consists of such materials as provisions and livestock feed. Cargo of this kind, while presumably innocent in character, is subject to seizure if, in the opinion of the belligerent nation that seizes them, the supplies are destined for the armed forces of the enemy rather than for civilian use and consumption. In former agreements among nations, certain other commodities, including soap, paper, clocks, agricultural machinery and jewelry, have been classified as non-contraband, although these distinctions have proved meaningless in practice.

Under conditions of modern warfare, in which armed conflict has largely become a struggle involving the total populations of the contending powers, virtually all commodities are classified by belligerents as absolute contraband.

During the American Civil War, Confederate-owned slaves who sought refuge in Union military camps or who lived in territories that fell under Union control were declared "contraband of war". This policy was first articulated by General Benjamin F. Butler in 1861, in what came to be known as the "Fort Monroe Doctrine," established in Hampton, Virginia. By war's end, the Union had set up 100 contraband camps in the South, and the Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony (1863–1867) was developed to be a self-sustaining colony.[2] Many adult freedmen worked for wages for the Army at such camps, teachers were recruited from the North for their schools by the American Missionary Association, and thousands of freedmen enlisted from such camps in the United States Colored Troops to fight with the Union against the Confederacy.[3]

Numerous treaties defining contraband have been concluded among nations. In time of war, the nations involved have invariably violated these agreements, formulating their own definitions as the fortunes of war indicated. The Declaration of London, drafted at the London Naval Conference of 1908–1909, and made partly effective by most of the European maritime nations at the outbreak of World War I, established comprehensive classifications of absolute and conditional contraband. As the war developed, the lists of articles in each category were constantly revised by the various belligerents, despite protests by neutral powers engaged in the carrying trade. By 1916 the list of conditional contraband included practically all waterborne cargo. Thereafter, for the duration of World War I, nearly all cargo in transit to an enemy nation was treated as contraband of war by the intercepting belligerent, regardless of the nature of the cargo. A similar policy was inaugurated by the belligerent powers early in World War II.

Under international law, the citizens of neutral nations are entitled to trade, at their own risk, with any or all powers engaged in war. No duty to restrain contraband trade is imposed on the neutral governments, but neither have neutral governments the right to interfere on behalf of citizens whose property is seized by one belligerent while in transit to another. The penalty traditionally imposed by belligerents on neutral carriers engaged in commercial traffic with the enemy consists of confiscation of cargo. By the Declaration of London, this was extended to include condemnation of the carrying vessel provided that more than half the cargo was contraband. The right of warring nations to sink neutral ships transporting contraband is not recognized in international law, but this practice was initiated by Germany in World War I and was often resorted to by the Axis Powers in World War II.[citation needed]

The possibility that two or more different sub-classifications of contraband, either absolute or conditional, such as weapons, drugs, people etc., could or would be smuggled by the same smuggling network or during the same smuggling run referred to as Multi Consignment Contraband smuggling was studied in 2009.[4] The study located sixteen different cases of Multi Consignment contraband which occurred around the world – four of which were targeting the United States of America. A 2011 study comparing North America, the Middle East and Asia smuggling tunnels identified smuggling tunnels dug and maintained by different groups ranging from small family business to terrorist organizations.[5] The primary purposes of Middle East tunnels were to generate a profit and other tunnels' primary purpose was to support terrorists, either through profit or action missions. The majority of the smuggling tunnels in the Middle East smuggled Multi Consignment Contraband, specifically conditional contraband although some smuggled both conditional and absolute including terrorist action missions (Hybrid tunnels). Most Hybrid tunnels rarely smuggled both conditional and absolute contraband at the same time because conditional and absolute contraband served different purposes. North American tunnels smuggled drugs and North America sewer/drainage ditched tunnels supported both drug and people smuggling. Asian smuggling tunnels in North Korea supported absolute contraband, principally terrorist action missions.


  1. [San Remo Manual on International Law Applicable to Armed Conflicts at Sea (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995)at 148.] International Committee of the Red Cross
  2. "The Roanoke Island Freedmen's Colony", provided by National Park Service, at North Carolina Digital History: LEARN NC, accessed 11 November 2010
  3. For further information on the use of the term "contraband" in the Civil War, see "Northern Visions of Race and Reform".
  4. Lichtenwald, Terrance G., Perri, Frank S., and MacKenzie, Paula M. (2009)."Smuggling Multi-Consignment contraband: Isolated Incidents or a New Trend?," Inside Homeland Security, 17-31.
  5. Lichtenwald, Terrance G. and Perri, Frank S. (2011). "Smuggling Tunnels: The Need for a Transnational Analysis," Inside Homeland Security Volume 9, Issue 1.