A war crime is an act that constitutes a serious violation of the laws of war
that gives rise to individual criminal
Examples of crimes include intentionally killing civilians
, destroying civilian property, taking hostage
s, performing a perfidy
, using child soldiers
, declaring that no quarter
will be given, and seriously violating the principles of distinction
, and military necessity
The concept of war crimes emerged at the turn of the twentieth century when the body of customary international law
applicable to warfare between sovereign state
s was codified. Such codification occurred at the national level, such as with the publication of the Lieber Code
in the United States, and at the international level with the adoption of the treaties during the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907
. Moreover, trials in national courts during this period further helped clarify the law.
Following the end of World War II
, major developments in the law occurred. Numerous trials of Axis
war criminals established the Nuremberg principles
, such as the notion that war crimes constituted crimes defined by international law
. Additionally, the Geneva Conventions
in 1949 defined new war crimes and established that states could exercise universal jurisdiction
over such crimes.
In the late 20th century and early 21st century, following the creation of several international court
s, additional categories of war crimes applicable to armed conflicts other than those between states, such as civil war
s, were defined.
The trial of Peter von Hagenbach
by an ad hoc
tribunal of the Holy Roman Empire
in 1474 was the first "international" war crimes trial, and also of command responsibility
[The evolution of individual criminal responsibility under international law](_blank)
By Edoardo Greppi, Associate Professor of International Law at the University of Turin, Italy, International Committee of the Red Cross No. 835, p. 531–553, October 30, 1999.
[highlights the first international war crimes tribunal](_blank)
by Linda Grant, Harvard Law Bulletin.
He was convicted and beheaded for crimes that "he as a knight was deemed to have a duty to prevent", although he had argued that he was "just following orders".
In 1865, Henry Wirz
, a Confederate States Army
officer, was held accountable by a military tribunal
for the appalling conditions at Andersonville Prison
, where many Union prisoners of war
died during the American Civil War
The Hague Conventions were international treaties negotiated at the First and Second Peace Conferences at The Hague
, Netherlands, in 1899 and 1907, respectively, and were, along with the Geneva Conventions, among the first formal statements of the laws of war
and war crimes in the nascent body of secular international law
The Geneva Conventions
are four related treaties adopted and continuously expanded from 1864 to 1949 that represent a legal basis and framework for the conduct of war under international law. Every single member state of the United Nations has currently ratified the conventions, which are universally accepted as customary international law
, applicable to every situation of armed conflict in the world. However, the Additional Protocols to the Geneva Conventions adopted in 1977 containing the most pertinent, detailed and comprehensive protections of international humanitarian law
for persons and objects in modern warfare are still not ratified by a number of States continuously engaged in armed conflicts, namely the United States, Israel, India, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, and others. Accordingly, states retain different codes and values with regard to wartime conduct. Some signatories have routinely violated the Geneva Conventions in a way which either uses the ambiguities of law or political maneuvering to sidestep the laws' formalities and principles.
Three conventions were revised and expanded with the fourth one added in 1949:
* First Geneva Convention
''for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field'' (Convention ''for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field'' was adopted in 1864, significantly revised and replaced by the 1906 version, the 1929 version
, and later the First Geneva Convention of 1949).
* Second Geneva Convention
''for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea'' (Convention ''for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea'' was adopted in 1906, significantly revised and replaced by the Second Geneva Convention of 1949).
* Third Geneva Convention
''relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War'' (Convention ''relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War'' was adopted in 1929
, significantly revised and replaced by the Third Geneva Convention of 1949).
* Fourth Geneva Convention
''relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War'' (first adopted in 1949, based on parts of the 1907 Hague Convention IV
Two Additional Protocols were adopted in 1977 with the third one added in 2005, completing and updating the Geneva Conventions:
* Protocol I
(1977) ''relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts.''
* Protocol II
(1977) ''relating to the Protection of Victims of Non-International Armed Conflicts.''
* Protocol III
(2005) ''relating to the Adoption of an Additional Distinctive Emblem.''
Leipzig War Crimes Trial
A small number of German military personnel of the First World War
were tried in 1921 by the German Supreme Court for alleged war crimes.
London Charter / Nuremberg Trials 1945
The modern concept of war crime was further developed under the auspices of the Nuremberg Trials
based on the definition in the London Charter
that was published on August 8, 1945. (Also see Nuremberg Principles
.) Along with war crimes the charter also defined crimes against peace and crimes against humanity, which are often committed during wars and in concert with war crimes.
International Military Tribunal for the Far East 1946
Also known as the Tokyo Trial, the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal or simply as the Tribunal, it was convened on May 3, 1946 to try the leaders of the Empire of Japan for three types of crimes: "Class A" (crimes against peace), "Class B" (war crimes), and "Class C" (crimes against humanity), committed during World War II
International Criminal Court 2002
On July 1, 2002, the International Criminal Court
, a treaty-based court located in The Hague
, came into being for the prosecution of war crimes committed on or after that date. Several nations, most notably the United States, China, Russia, and Israel, have criticized the court. The United States still participates as an observer. Article 12 of the Rome Statute provides jurisdiction over the citizens of non-contracting states in the event that they are accused of committing crimes in the territory of one of the state parties.
War crimes are defined in the statute that established the International Criminal Court, which includes:
# Grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, such as:
## Willful killing, or causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health
or inhumane treatment
## Unlawful wanton destruction or appropriation of property
## Forcing a prisoner of war
to serve in the forces of a hostile power
## Depriving a prisoner of war of a fair trial
## Unlawful deportation
, confinement or transfer
## Taking hostage
## Directing attacks against civilians
## Directing attacks against humanitarian workers or UN peacekeeper
## Killing a surrendered combatant
## Misusing a flag of truce
## Settlement of occupied territory
## Deportation of inhabitants of occupied territory
## Using poison weapons
## Using civilians as shields
## Using child soldiers
## Firing upon a Combat Medic
with clear insignia.
# The following acts as part of a non-international conflict:
## Murder, cruel or degrading treatment and torture
## Directing attacks against civilians, humanitarian workers or UN peacekeepers
# The following acts as part of an international conflict:
## Taking hostages
## Summary execution
## Rape, sexual slavery
, forced prostitution or forced pregnancy
However the court only has jurisdiction over these crimes where they are "''part of a plan or policy or as part of a large-scale commission of such crimes''".
Heads of state and government
To date, the present and former heads of state
and heads of government
that have been charged with war crimes include:
* German Großadmiral
and President Karl Dönitz
and Japanese Prime Ministers
and Generals Hideki Tōjō
and Kuniaki Koiso
in the aftermath of World War II.
* Former Serbian President Slobodan Milošević
was brought to trial charges with, genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes in three republics. The tribunal found the prosecution had according to its rules and procedures; enough evidence was tailored, prior to the defense presentation, that, "a reasonable trier of fact, could conclude, the accused was responsible for the crimes charged." This pertained to superior responsibility for the Bosnia and Croatia indictments, and individual responsibility for the Kosovo indictment. No conviction was established however, as he died in custody in 2006, before the trial could be concluded.
* Former Liberian President Charles G. Taylor
was also brought to The Hague charged with war crimes; his trial stretched from 2007 to March 2011. He was convicted in April 2012 of Aiding and Abbetting and planning the commission of Crimes against Humanity, committed during the war under individual and command responsibility.
* Former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadžić
was arrested in Belgrade on July 18, 2008 and brought before Belgrade's War Crimes Court a few days after. He was extradited to the Netherlands, and is currently in The Hague, in the custody of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia
. The trial began in 2010. On March 24, 2016, he was found guilty of genocide
, war crimes and crimes against humanity
, 10 of the 11 charges in total, and sentenced to 40 years' imprisonment.
He was sentenced to life on appeal.
* Omar al-Bashir
, former head of state of Sudan
, is charged with three counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and other war crimes regarding the 2003– War in the Darfur region of Sudan. The first head of state charged with genocide by the International Criminal Court with current warrants of arrest actions in Darfur
* Former Libyan
leader Muammar Gaddafi
was indicted for allegedly ordering the killings of protesters and civilians and Crimes against Humanity, during the 2011 Libyan civil war
, however he was killed before he could stand trial in October 2011.
Other prominent indictees
* Yoshijirō Umezu
, a general in the Imperial Japanese Army
* Seishirō Itagaki
, War minister
of the Empire of Japan
* Hermann Göring
, Commander in Chief of the Luftwaffe
* Ernst Kaltenbrunner
and Adolf Eichmann
, high-ranking members of the SS
* Wilhelm Keitel
, head of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht
* Erich Raeder
, Commander in Chief of the Kriegsmarine
* Albert Speer
, Minister of Armaments and War Production in Nazi Germany
* William Calley
, former U.S. Army officer found guilty of murder for his role in the My Lai Massacre
* Ali Hassan Abd al-Majid al-Tikriti
, more commonly known by his nickname "Chemical Ali", executed by post-Ba'athist Iraq for his leadership of the gassing of Kurd
ish villages during the Iran-Iraq War; also governor of illegally occupied Kuwait
during the First Gulf War
* Ratko Mladić
, indicted for genocide
amongst other violations of humanitarian law during the Bosnian War
; he was captured in Serbia in May 2011 and was extradited to face trial in The Hague, wherein he was found guilty and sentenced to life in prison.
* Joseph Kony
, leader of the Lord's Resistance Army
, guerrilla group which used to operate in Uganda.
War crimes are serious violations of the rules of customary and treaty law concerning international humanitarian law
that have become accepted as criminal offenses for which there is individual responsibility.
Colloquial definitions of ''war crime'' include violations of established protections of the ''laws of war'', but also include failures to adhere to norms of procedure and rules of battle, such as attacking those displaying a peaceful flag of truce
, or using that same flag as a ruse to mount an attack on enemy troops. The use of chemical
and biological weapons
in warfare are also prohibited by numerous chemical arms control agreements
and the Biological Weapons Convention
. Wearing enemy uniforms or civilian clothes to infiltrate enemy lines for espionage
missions is a legitimate ruse of war
, though fighting in combat
individuals behind enemy lines while so disguised is not, as it constitutes unlawful perfidy
. Attacking enemy troops while they are being deployed by way of a parachute
is not a war crime. However, Protocol I, Article 42 of the Geneva Conventions
explicitly forbids attacking parachutists who eject from disabled aircraft
and surrendering parachutists once landed.
[''Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of August 12, 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflict'', International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, Switzerlan]
Article 30 of the 1907 Hague Convention ''IV – The Laws and Customs of War on Land'' explicitly prohibits belligerent
s to punish enemy spies without previous trial
The rule of war, also known as the Law of Armed Conflict
, permit belligerents to engage in combat. A war crime occurs when superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering is inflicted upon an enemy.
War crimes also include such acts as mistreatment of prisoners of war
. War crimes are sometimes part of instances of mass murder
though these crimes are more broadly covered under international humanitarian law
described as crimes against humanity
. In 2008, the U.N. Security Council
adopted Resolution 1820
, which noted that "rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide"; see also war rape
. In 2016, the International Criminal Court
convicted someone of sexual violence for the first time; specifically, they added rape to a war crimes conviction of Congo Vice President Jean-Pierre Bemba Gombo
War crimes also included deliberate attacks on citizens
of neutral states
, such as the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor
. As the attack on Pearl Harbor happened while the U.S. and Japan were at peace and without a just cause for self-defense, the attack was declared by the Tokyo Trials
to go beyond justification of military necessity
and therefore constituted a war crime.
War crimes are significant in international humanitarian law because it is an area where international tribunals such as the Nuremberg Trials
and Tokyo Trials
have been convened. Recent examples are the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia
and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda
, which were established by the UN Security Council
acting under Chapter VIII of the UN Charter
Under the Nuremberg Principles
, ''war crimes'' are different from crimes against peace
. Crimes against peace include planning, preparing, initiating, or waging a war of aggression
, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements, or assurances. Because the definition of a state of "war" may be debated, the term "war crime" itself has seen different usage under different systems of international and military law. It has some degree of application outside of what some may consider to be a state of "war", but in areas where conflicts persist enough to constitute social instability.
The legalities of war have sometimes been accused of containing favoritism toward the winners ("Victor's justice
"), as some controversies have not been ruled as war crimes. Some examples include the Allies
' destruction of Axis
cities during World War II
, such as the firebombing of Dresden
, the ''Operation Meetinghouse'' raid on Tokyo
(the most destructive single bombing raid in history), and the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki
. In regard to the strategic bombing during World War II
, there was no international treaty or instrument protecting a civilian population specifically from attack by aircraft,
therefore the aerial attacks on civilians were not officially war crimes. The Allies at the trials in Nuremberg
never prosecuted the Germans, including Luftwaffe
commander-in-chief Hermann Göring
, for the bombing raids on Warsaw
, and British cities during the Blitz
as well as the indiscriminate attacks on Allied cities with V-1 flying bomb
s and V-2 rocket
s, nor the Japanese for the aerial attacks on crowded Chinese cities. Although there are no treaties specific to aerial warfare,
Protocol 1, Article 51 of the Geneva Conventions explicitly prohibits the bombardment of cities where civilian population might be concentrated regardless of any method.
(see Aerial bombardment and international law
Controversy arose when the Allies re-designated German POW
s (under the protection of the 1929 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War
) as Disarmed Enemy Forces
(allegedly unprotected by the 1929 Geneva Convention on Prisoners of War), many of which then were used for forced labor
such as clearing minefields
[S. P. MacKenzie "The Treatment of Prisoners of War in World War II" ''The Journal of Modern History'', Vol. 66, No. 3. (Sep. 1994), pp. 487–520.]
By December 1945, six months after the war had ended, it was estimated by French authorities that 2,000 German prisoners were still being killed or maimed each month in mine-clearing accidents.
The wording of the 1949 Third Geneva Convention
was intentionally altered from that of the 1929 convention so that soldiers who "fall into the power" following surrender or mass capitulation of an enemy are now protected as well as those taken prisoner in the course of fighting.
Legality of civilian casualties
Under the law of armed conflict
(LOAC), the death of non-combatants is not necessarily a violation; there are many things to take into account. Civilians ''cannot'' be made the object of an attack, but the death/injury of civilians while conducting an attack on a military objective are governed under principles such as of proportionality and military necessity
and can be permissible. Military necessity "permits the destruction of life of ... persons whose destruction is incidentally unavoidable by the armed conflicts of the war; ... it does not permit the killing of innocent inhabitants for purposes of revenge or the satisfaction of a lust to kill. The destruction of property to be lawful must be imperatively demanded by the necessities of war."
For example, conducting an operation on ammunition depot or a terrorist training camp would not be prohibited because a farmer is plowing a field in the area; the farmer is not the object of attack and the operations would adhere to proportionality and military necessity. On the other hand, an extraordinary military advantage would be necessary to justify an operation posing risks of collateral death or injury to thousands of civilians. In "grayer" cases the legal question of whether the expected incidental harm is excessive may be very subjective. For this reason, States have chosen to apply a "clearly excessive" standard for determining whether a criminal violation has occurred.
When there is no justification for military action, such as civilians being made the object of attack, a proportionality analysis is unnecessary to conclude that the attack is unlawful.
International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia
For aerial strikes, pilots generally have to rely on information supplied external sources (headquarters, ground troops) that a specific position is in fact a military target. In the case of former Yugoslavia
pilots hit a civilian object (the Chinese embassy in Belgrade
) that was of no military significance, but the pilots had no idea of determining it aside from their orders. The committee ruled that "the aircrew involved in the attack should not be assigned any responsibility for the fact they were given the wrong target and that it is inappropriate to attempt to assign criminal responsibility for the incident to senior leaders because they were provided with wrong information by officials of another agency".
The report also notes that "Much of the material submitted to the OTP consisted of reports that civilians had been killed, often inviting the conclusion to be drawn that crimes had therefore been committed. Collateral casualties to civilians and collateral damage to civilian objects can occur for a variety of reasons."
The Rendulic Rule is a standard by which commanders are judged.
German General Lothar Rendulic
was charged for ordering extensive destruction of civilian buildings and lands while retreating from a suspected enemy attack in what is called scorched earth
policy for the military purpose of denying the use of ground for the enemy. He overestimated the perceived risk but argued that Hague IV
authorized the destruction because it was necessary to war. He was acquitted of that charge.
Under the "Rendulic Rule" persons must assess the military necessity of an action based on the information available to them at that time; they cannot be judged based on information that subsequently comes to light.
* List of war crimes
* 1971 Bangladesh atrocities
* Allied war crimes during World War II
* British war crimes
* German war crimes
** Consequences of German Nazism
** War crimes of the Wehrmacht
* International Military Tribunal for the Far East
* Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant war crimes findings
* Italian war crimes
* Japanese war crimes
* Saudi Arabian-led intervention in Yemen
* Korean War crimes
* Soviet war crimes
* United States Senate Committee on the Philippines
* United States war crimes
* American Service-Members' Protection Act
* Command responsibility
* Law of war
* Rule of Law in Armed Conflicts Project (RULAC)
* Russell Tribunal
* Special Court for Sierra Leone
* The International Criminal Court and the 2003 invasion of Iraq
* War Crimes Law (Belgium)
* War Crimes Act of 1996
– incorporation of War Crimes into United States law
* Chronicles of Terror
* Civilian internee
* Commando order
* Commissar order
* Crimes against humanity
* Crime against peace
* Crime of aggression
* Doctors' Trial
* Forensic archaeology
* Human shield
* International Criminal Court investigations
* Katyn massacre
* List of denaturalized former citizens of the United States
, including those denaturalized for concealing involvement in war crimes to obtain that country's citizenship
* Mass Atrocity crimes
* Mass killing
* Military use of children
* Nazi human experimentation
* NKVD prisoner massacres
* No quarter
* Nuremberg Principles
* Razakars (Pakistan)
* Satellite Sentinel Project
* Srebrenica massacre
* State terrorism
* Terror bombing
* Transitional justice
* Unlawful combatant
* Wartime sexual violence
* Winter Soldier Investigation
* Hagopian, Patrick (2013). ''American Immunity: War Crimes and the Limits of International Law.'' Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
*Crimes Against Humanity
*International Criminal Court
*Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court
*Rule of Law
Australian Bunker And Military Museum - abmm.org
War Crimes: Responsibility and the Psychology of Atrocity
* Human Rights FirstCommand's Responsibility: Detainee Deaths in U.S. Custody in Iraq and AfghanistanTheRule of Law in Armed Conflicts ProjectCrimes of War ProjectRome Treaty of the International Criminal CourtSpecial Court for Sierra LeoneUN International Criminal Tribunal for the former YugoslaviaUN International Criminal Tribunal for RwandaCBC Digital Archives -Fleeing Justice: War Criminals in CanadaA Criminological Analysis of the Invasion and Occupation of Iraq By Ronald C. Kramer and Raymond J. Michalowski
Investigating Human Rights – Reaching Out to Diaspora Communities in U.S. for War Crimes Tips
UK's Geneva Conventions (Amendment) Act 1995 – which bans War Crimes
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