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War Crimes

Acts that violate the international laws, treaties, customs, and practices governing military conflict between belligerent states or parties.

War crimes may be committed by a country's regular armed forces, such as its army, navy, or air force, or by irregular armed forces, such as guerrillas and insurgents. Soldiers may be punished for war crimes, as may military and political leaders, members of the judiciary, industrialists, and civilians who are enlisted by a belligerent to contravene the RULES OF WAR.

However, isolated instances of TERRORISM and single acts of rebellion are rarely, if ever, treated as war crimes punishable under the international rules of warfare. Instead, they are ordinarily treated as criminal violations punishable under the domestic laws of the country in which they occur.

Most war crimes fall into one of three categories: crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, and traditional war crimes. Crimes against peace include the planning, commencement, and waging of aggressive war, or war in violation of international agreements. Aggressive war is broadly defined to include any hostile military act that disregards the territorial boundaries of another country, disrespects the political independence of another regime, or otherwise interferes with the sovereignty of an internationally recognized state. Wars fought in self-defense are not aggressive wars.

Following WORLD WAR II, for example, the Allies prosecuted a number of leading Nazi officials at the NUREMBERG TRIALS for crimes against peace. During the war, the Nazis had invaded and occupied a series of sovereign states, including France, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Austria. Because those invasions were made in an effort to accumulate wealth, power, and territory for the Third Reich, Nazi officials could not claim to be acting in self-defense. Thus, those officials who participated in the planning, initiation, or execution of those invasions were guilty of crimes against peace.

Hermann Göring, chief of the Luftwaffe (the German Air Force), was one Nazi official who was convicted of crimes against peace at the Nuremberg trials. The international military tribunal presiding at Nuremberg, composed of judges selected from the four Allied powers (France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States), found that Göring had helped plan and carry out the invasions of Poland and Austria and had ordered the destruction of Rotterdam, Holland, after the city had effectively surrendered.

Crimes against humanity include the deportation, enslavement, persecution, and extermination of certain peoples based on their race, religion, ethnic origin, or some other identifiable characteristic. This category of war crimes was created almost entirely from the catalog of atrocities committed by the Nazi regime in World War II. Although other regimes have since committed horrors of their own, the Nazis established the standard by which the wartime misconduct of all subsequent regimes is now measured.

As part of the Nazi blitzkrieg, the Germans constructed concentration camps around Europe where they gassed, tortured, and incinerated millions of Jews and other persons they deemed impure or subversive to the Aryan race. Millions of others who escaped this fate were deported to Nazi labor camps in occupied countries where they were compelled at gunpoint to work on behalf of the Third Reich. The Nazi leaders who were responsible for implementing this totalitarian system of terror were guilty of crimes against humanity.

Many Nazi leaders were prosecuted for crimes against humanity during the Nuremberg trials. For example, Ernst Kaltenbrunner, head of the Nazi security organization in charge of the gestapo (the German secret police), was convicted and sentenced to death based on evidence that he had authorized the extermination of Jews at concentration camps and ordered the CONSCRIPTION and deportation of civilians to foreign labor camps.

Traditional war crimes consist of those acts that violate the accepted customs, practices, and laws of warfare that have been followed by civilized nations for centuries. These rules of war prescribe the rights and obligations of belligerent states, prisoners of war, and occupying powers, as well as those of combatants and civilians. They also set restrictions on the types of weapons that belligerents may employ during combat. Soldiers, officers, and members of the high command can all be held responsible for violating the accepted customs and practices of war, regardless of whether they issue an order commanding an illegal act or simply follow such an order.

Soldiers, officers, and the high command can also be held responsible for failing to prevent war crimes. Military personnel in a position of authority have an obligation to instruct their subordinates on the customs and practices of war and a duty to supervise and oversee their conduct on the battlefield. A military commander who neglects this duty can be punished for any war crimes committed by his troops. Following World War II, for example, Japanese General Tomoyuki Yamashita was prosecuted and sentenced to death by a U.S. military tribunal in the South Pacific for dereliction of duty in "failing to provide effective control" of his troops who had massacred, raped, and pillaged innocent noncombatant civilians and mistreated U.S. prisoners of war in the Philippines (Christenson 1991, 491).

For more than five centuries, the rules of war have been applied to military conflicts between countries. Until the last decade, many observers contended that the rules of war do not govern hostilities between combatants in civil wars that take place wholly within the territorial boundaries of a single state. However, during the 1990s, the UNITED NATIONS established two international military tribunals to investigate and prosecute war crimes that allegedly took place in the civil wars fought within Bosnia-Herzegovina and Rwanda.

The two tribunals indicted soldiers and other combatants in both countries for committing a litany of war crimes, including the torture of political and military enemies, the programmatic raping of women, and GENOCIDE. Although the litigants questioned the jurisdiction and authority of each tribunal, trials proceeded against certain defendants who had been captured. Thus, the theater in which war crimes can be committed and punished has expanded from international military conflicts to intranational civil wars.

In 1998, the United Nations established the INTERNATIONAL CRIMINAL COURT (ICC) with the signing of the Rome Treaty. The court, which came into force on July 1, 2002, is the first permanent international criminal tribunal. Many countries over the course of many years expressed the need for such a permanent court, but politics during the COLD WAR and other factors prevented its creation. The treaty, however, received widespread international support upon its signing. The ICC is empowered to hear three major types of cases, including genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes.

The United States originally signed the treaty on December 31, 2000, but did so with reservations. One claim was that the court could be used to prosecute troops based on the political motivations of other nations. The United States introduced an amendment to the treaty that would have given U.N. security council members the right to VETO certain prosecutions, but the amendment was rejected. Even when President BILL CLINTON signed the

Former president of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevic, faced multiple war crimes charges—including genocide—before the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague even though he refused to accept the validity of the court.

treaty, members of his cabinet and members of Congress expressed concerns about the court's powers. In May 2002, President GEORGE W. BUSH instructed the U.S. STATE DEPARTMENT to inform the secretary-general of the United Nations that the United States would not become a party to the treaty.


Meron, Theodor. 1998. War Crimes Law Comes of Age: Essays. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

Simpson, Gerry, ed. 2004. War Crimes. Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate/Dartmouth.

Wald, Patricia. 2003. "Trying War Crimes in International Courts." International Journal of Legal Information 31 (summer).


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