The Gap

Why war crimes are abhorred by the international community

Why war crimes are abhorred by the international community

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Ethiopia-Tigray War have rekindled the world’s attention to war crimes and their effects. Combatants of warring factions in wars or armed conflicts behave recklessly, at times, and indulge in certain actions that are deemed unacceptable and extreme. Irrespective of whether or not they get their commander-in-chief’s or battle commanders’ permission, the combatants or rebels commit these heinous crimes.

Unfortunately, the main victims of these war crimes are innocent civilians in the crosshairs of the combatants on each side of the divide. Civilians are inundated at their places of residence by these combatants and fall prey to them as they have nowhere to run to. Since the 20th century, members of the international community have intensified efforts to develop a framework of regulations to prevent war crimes. However, these crimes continue to happen at a rampant rate these days, courtesy of the sophisticated military weapons and the havoc they cause.

So, what are war crimes? What constitutes war crimes? Are there repercussions for such crimes?

Meaning of war crimes

Meaning of war crimes

War crimes, according to the United Nations, are serious violations of international laws committed against civilians and/or certain combatants in armed conflict. They are acts carried out during a war violating accepted international war rules. It refers to criminal actions taken against civilians or enemy combatants of a country/region by the combatants of another country during armed conflict.

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The definition of war crimes is best summed up by Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention (1949), which states that war crimes are:

“…wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including … wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement of a protected person … taking of hostages and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly”.

These crimes are considered some of the gravest crimes in international law and must occur during an armed conflict to be classified as war crimes. Individuals incur criminal responsibility under international law for such crimes. One important point to note is that because of the gravity, there is no period of limitation for war crimes. Therefore, individuals who commit them can be prosecuted and punished no matter how much time has elapsed since the crimes were committed. Also, war crimes are committed in both international and non-international armed conflicts.

The first significant attempt to codify a framework of regulations against war crimes was in 1863 with the Lieber Code. The Lieber Code, signed by the then U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, instructed the country’s Union Army during the American Civil War on how to conduct themselves during the war. For instance, the code outlawed the U.S. soldiers from carrying out “no quarter” to the enemy (i.e. killing prisoners of war), forbade wanton violence committed against persons in the invaded country, barred the use of torture to extract confessions or information and banned force the subjects of the enemy into service for the victorious government.

Since 1863, numerous attempts have been made to define and codify a broad range of methods of warfare as war crimes. These treaties include:

  • The First Geneva Convention of 1864 (for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field) – replaced by the 1929 convention on the same subject matter
  • The Hague Convention of 1899 (Convention concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land, Prohibition of the Use of Projectiles such as asphyxiating poisonous gases and use of bullets which can expand or flatten easily in the human body et al.)
  • The Hague Convention of 1907 (modified and updated provisions of the First Hague Convention)
  • The Second Geneva Convention of 1907 (for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea)
  • The Third Geneva Convention of 1929 (relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War) – it replaced the 1929 Geneva Convention that dealt with prisoners of war
  • The Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 (relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War) – integrated parts of the Hague Convention (II) of 1899 and Hague Convention (IV) of 1907
  • The three amendment protocols to the 1949 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 Conflict and Protocol III (2005) relating to the Adoption of an Additional Distinctive Emblem
  • The Nuremberg principles of 1950
  • The Rome Statute of 1998

Types of war crimes

Types of war crimes

No single document in international law codifies what constitutes war crimes. The types of war crimes have been codified in various international statutes, such as the ones mentioned in the preceding section of this piece.

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Fourth Geneva Convention

As stated earlier, Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention stipulates a list of serious offences that qualify as grave breaches of the Convention, which are implied as war crimes. It was the first categorisation and codification of what constitutes war crimes.

The article states that grave breaches to which the preceding Article (Article 146) relates shall be those involving any of the following acts if committed against persons or property protected by the present Convention:

  • Wilful killing
  • Torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments
  • Wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to the body or health
  • Unlawful deportation or transfer, or unlawful confinement of a protected person
  • Compelling a protected person to serve in the forces of a hostile Power
  • Wilfully depriving a protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed in the present Convention
  • Taking of hostages
  • Extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly

The Nuremberg Principles

The Nuremberg principles of 1950 were created by the International Law Commission of the United Nations to codify the legal principles fundamental to the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi party members who participated in World War II. Principle VI of the Nuremberg principles enunciated what constitutes war crimes.

Crimes against peace

(i) Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances;

(ii) Participation in a common plan or conspiracy to accomplish any of the acts mentioned under (i).

War crimes

Violations of the laws or customs of war include, but are not limited to:

  • Murder
  • Ill-treatment or deportation to slave labour or for any other purpose of the civilian population of or in occupied territory
  • Murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the Seas
  • Killing of hostages
  • Plunder of public or private property
  • Wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity

Crimes against humanity

  • Murder
  • Extermination
  • Enslavement
  • Deportation and other inhumane acts done against any civilian population
  • Persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds, when such acts are done or such persecutions are carried on in execution of or in connection with any crime against peace or any war crime (genocide)

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Rome Statue

The Rome Statue of 1998 expanded on the criteria set by the Fourth Geneva Convention and the Nuremberg principles of 1950, and stipulated in Article 8 the following:

For this Statute, ‘war crimes’, according to the United Nations, means:

  1. Grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, namely, any of the following acts against persons or property protected under the provisions of the relevant Geneva Convention (as aforementioned)
  2. Other serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in international armed conflict within the established framework of international law, namely, any of the following acts:
    1. Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities;
    2. Intentionally directing attacks against civilian objects, that is, objects which are not military objectives;
    3. Intentionally directing attacks against personnel, installations, material, units or vehicles involved in a humanitarian assistance or peacekeeping mission in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, as long as they are entitled to the protection given to civilians or civilian objects under the international law of armed conflict;
    4. Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment, which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated;
    5. Attacking or bombarding, by whatever means, towns, villages, dwellings or buildings which are undefended and which are not military objectives;
    6. Killing or wounding a combatant who, having laid down his arms or having no longer means of defence, has surrendered at discretion;
    7. Making improper use of a flag of truce, of the flag or of the military insignia and uniform of the enemy or of the United Nations, as well as of the distinctive emblems of the Geneva Conventions, resulting in death or serious personal injury;
    8. The transfer, directly or indirectly, by the Occupying Power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies, or the deportation or transfer of all or parts of the population of the occupied territory within or outside this territory;
    9. Intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not military objectives;
    10. Subjecting persons who are in the power of an adverse party to physical mutilation or to medical or scientific experiments of any kind which are neither justified by the medical, dental or hospital treatment of the person concerned nor carried out in his or her interest, and which cause death to or seriously endanger the health of such person or persons;
    11. Killing or wounding treacherously individuals belonging to the hostile nation or army;
    12. Declaring that no quarter will be given;
    13. Destroying or seizing the enemy’s property unless such destruction or seizure be imperatively demanded by the necessities of war;
    14. Declaring abolished, suspended or inadmissible in a court of law the rights and actions of the nationals of the hostile party;
    15. Compelling the nationals of the hostile party to take part in the operations of war directed against their own country, even if they were in the belligerent’s service before the commencement of the war;
    16. Pillaging a town or place, even when taken by assault;
    17. Employing poison or poisoned weapons;
    18. Employing asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and all analogous liquids, materials or devices;
    19. Employing bullets which expand or flatten easily in the human body, such as bullets with a hard envelope which does not entirely cover the core or is pierced with incisions;
    20. Employing weapons, projectiles and materials and methods of warfare which are of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering or which are inherently indiscriminate in violation of the international law of armed conflict, provided that such weapons, projectiles and material and methods of warfare are the subject of a comprehensive prohibition and are included in an annex to this Statute, by an amendment in accordance with the relevant provisions set forth in articles 121 and 123;
    21. Committing outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment;
    22. Committing rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, as defined in article 7, paragraph 2 (f), enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence also constituting a grave breach of the Geneva Conventions;
    23. Utilizing the presence of a civilian or other protected people to render certain points, areas or military forces immune from military operations;
    24. Intentionally directing attacks against buildings, material, medical units and transport, and personnel using the distinctive emblems of the Geneva Conventions in conformity with international law;
    25. Intentionally using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare by depriving them of objects indispensable to their survival, including wilfully impeding relief supplies as provided for under the Geneva Conventions;
    26. Conscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen years into the national armed forces or using them to participate actively in hostilities.
  1. In the case of an armed conflict not of an international character, serious violations of article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, namely, any of the following acts committed against persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention or any other cause:
    1. Violence to life and person, in particular, murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture;
    2. Committing outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment;
    3. Taking of hostages;
    4. The passing of sentences and the carrying out of executions without previous judgement pronounced by a regularly constituted court, affording all judicial guarantees which are generally recognized as indispensable.
  2. Paragraph 2 (c) applies to armed conflicts, not of an international character and thus does not apply to situations of internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence or other acts of a similar nature.
  3. Other serious violations of the laws and customs applicable in armed conflicts not of an international character, within the established framework of international law, namely, any of the following acts:
    1. Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities;
    2. Intentionally directing attacks against buildings, material, medical units and transport, and personnel using the distinctive emblems of the Geneva Conventions in conformity with international law;
    3. Intentionally directing attacks against personnel, installations, material, units or vehicles involved in a humanitarian assistance or peacekeeping mission in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, as long as they are entitled to the protection given to civilians or civilian objects under the international law of armed conflict;
    4. Intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historic monuments, hospitals and places where the sick and wounded are collected, provided they are not military objectives;
    5. Pillaging a town or place, even when taken by assault;
    6. Committing rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, as defined in article 7, paragraph 2 (f), enforced sterilization, and any other form of sexual violence also constituting a serious violation of article 3 common to the four Geneva Conventions;
    7. Conscripting or enlisting children under the age of fifteen years into armed forces or groups or using them to participate actively in hostilities;
    8. Ordering the displacement of the civilian population for reasons related to the conflict, unless the security of the civilians involved or imperative military reasons so demand;
    9. Killing or wounding treacherously a combatant adversary;
    10. Declaring that no quarter will be given;
    11. Subjecting persons who are in the power of another party to the conflict to physical mutilation or to medical or scientific experiments of any kind which are neither justified by the medical, dental or hospital treatment of the person concerned nor carried out in his or her interest, and which cause death to or seriously endanger the health of such person or persons;
    12. Destroying or seizing the property of an adversary unless such destruction or seizure be imperatively demanded by the necessities of the conflict;
  4. Paragraph 2 (e) applies to armed conflicts, not of an international character and thus does not apply to situations of internal disturbances and tensions, such as riots, isolated and sporadic acts of violence or other acts of a similar nature. It applies to armed conflicts that take place in the territory of a State when there is a protracted armed conflict between governmental authorities and organized armed groups or between such groups.

Source: United Nations

Punishment for war crimes

Punishment for war crimes

The punishment of war criminals convicted by courts – such as the International Criminal Court, a UN-backed or constituted international war crimes tribunal or a competent court of law in any country – ranges from long-term imprisonment to death. The sentencing depends on the guidelines set out by the court or tribunal determining the matter and the gravity of the crime committed.

The first known instance of punishment for war crimes was in 1474 when Peter von Hagenbach, a Burgundian knight and German military and civil commander, was convicted by an ad hoc tribunal of the Holy Roman Empire for the atrocities committed such as murder, rape and perjury during the occupation of Breisach. Von Hagenbach was sentenced to death and subsequently beheaded.

Since the aftermath of World War I, many persons have been prosecuted and convicted for war crimes at various courts across the world. According to the various treatises mentioned, leaders, organisers, instigators and accomplices participating in formulating or executing a common plan or conspiracy to commit any of the crimes listed are criminally responsible.

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Gabriel is a trained political scientist, and a qualified and versatile communications professional who has worked as a journalist and Public Relations executive. He has a knack for content creation and development and is a keen digital native interested in all things good.
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