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What is a war crime?

War is a harrowing human experience, but certain acts committed during armed conflicts are so morally reprehensible and inhumane that they are considered war crimes. These actions are violations of international law and go beyond the brutality inherent in warfare. To understand what constitutes a war crime, it is essential to explore their definition, examples, and the mechanisms in place to address them.


Defining War Crimes

War crimes are serious violations of the laws and customs of war, which apply to both international and non-international armed conflicts. These crimes are explicitly defined in international legal instruments, primarily the Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols, as well as the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

Black and white image showing the destruction of a neighbourhood during warfare

The most widely accepted definition of war crimes is provided by the Rome Statute, which includes a range of actions such as:

1. Intentional Killing: Deliberate killing of civilians, prisoners of war, or other individuals who are not taking part in hostilities.

2. Torture and Inhumane Treatment: Torture, inhumane or degrading treatment, and experimentation on individuals in the custody of a party to the conflict.

3. Attacks on Civilians and Civilian Objects: Deliberate or indiscriminate attacks on civilian populations, infrastructure, or objects indispensable for the survival of civilians, such as food, water, or medical facilities.

4. Taking Hostages: Holding individuals as hostages or using them as human shields.

5. Attacks on Medical and Humanitarian Personnel: Deliberate attacks on healthcare workers, facilities, and humanitarian personnel.

6. Widespread and Systematic Attacks: Attacks intended to cause excessive harm or suffering, carried out in a widespread or systematic manner.

These actions are often committed with a profound disregard for human life, dignity, and the principles that underpin humanitarian law.


Historical Context

The legal framework for defining war crimes has evolved significantly over the past century. The origins of modern war crime prosecution can be traced back to the aftermath of World War I. The Treaty of Versailles, which ended the war, established the principle that individuals could be held criminally responsible for war-related actions.

A large group of delegates gather at the Palace of Versailles on the outskirts of Paris to sign The Treaty of Versailles..

The Nuremberg Trials and the Tokyo Trials following World War II represented landmark moments in the history of prosecuting war crimes. The tribunals held Nazi leaders and Japanese military officials accountable for atrocities such as genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

The establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in 2002 marked another milestone. The ICC serves as a permanent international tribunal dedicated to prosecuting individuals for the most serious crimes under international law, including war crimes.


Examples of War Crimes

War crimes have been committed in various conflicts around the world, leaving a trail of suffering and destruction. Some notable examples include:

1. The Holocaust: The systematic extermination of millions of Jews by the Nazis during World War II, including mass killings, forced labour, and medical experiments, constitutes one of the most heinous instances of war crimes.

Black and white images of a Nazi Concentration camp with high barbwire fences

2. The Balkans Wars: The Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s involved widespread atrocities, including mass killings, ethnic cleansing, and sexual violence, leading to the prosecution of numerous individuals for war crimes by international tribunals.

3. The Rwandan Genocide: The genocide in Rwanda in 1994 involved the mass murder of approximately 800,000 Tutsis by ethnic Hutus, including widespread killings, sexual violence, and the use of radio broadcasts to incite violence.

4. The Syrian Civil War: The ongoing conflict in Syria has witnessed numerous alleged war crimes, including indiscriminate attacks on civilians, chemical weapon use, torture, and the deliberate targeting of medical facilities.


Legal Framework and Accountability

The international legal framework for addressing war crimes is multifaceted. The Rome Statute of the ICC provides a comprehensive definition of war crimes and establishes the ICC's jurisdiction to prosecute individuals for such crimes.

The International Criminal Courts building in the Hague

After crimes occur there will be preliminary examinations and investigations which determine whether there is sufficient evidence to identify a suspect and if it falls within the ICC jurisdiction or national courts. The ICC can only prosecute individuals when national authorities are unwilling or unable to do so, reinforcing the responsibility of states to prosecute their citizens for war crimes.

Once an arrest warrant is issued the ICC is dependent on countries to arrest and transfer suspects to the ICC. Alternatively, the judge may issue a summons for the suspect to appear voluntarily.

In their initial appearance in court, three ICC judges will confirm suspect's identity and ensure they understand the charges. All suspects have the right to information in a language they understand fluently. They are also considered innocent until proven guilty.

Once the case goes to trial, the three ICC judges will consider all the evidence and issue a verdict. If the verdict is guilty, the judges will then issue a sentence which can be up to 30 years imprisonment or in extreme cases a life sentence. Judges can also order reparations for victims.

The victims and the convicted individual can appeal the decision. The appeal is decided by five judges who cannot be the same three judges from the original court proceedings. The Appeals Chamber will decide if to uphold the ruling, amend it or reverse it.

The process is often lengthy and takes place years after the crime was committed. There is no period of limitation which means those who commit war crimes can be prosecuted and punished.

On the 17th March 2023, the ICC issued an arrest warrant for Russian President, Vladimir Putin.

Read more about how the court works here.


War crimes are abhorrent acts that shock the conscience of humanity. Recognising and addressing these crimes is a testament to our commitment to justice, human rights, and the prevention of grave violations during armed conflicts. While significant progress has been made in holding perpetrators accountable, continued vigilance and international cooperation are vital to ensuring that those who commit war crimes are brought to justice and that the victims of such atrocities receive redress and recognition. Ultimately, the pursuit of justice in the face of war crimes is essential for building a world where the horrors of war are tempered by principles of humanity and the rule of law.


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