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War Crimes

War Crimes Trials

As noted above, trials of soldiers who raped civilians, tortured prisoners, or killed the wounded have been rare events until modern times. Victorious armies seldom punished their own men. In the days when payment to soldiers was haphazard, commanders found that permitting excesses and the pillaging of the enemy served as a useful escape valve, and clear rules on what was prohibited in war were not definitively laid down.

With the rise of permanent, professional armies, the necessity for imposing discipline upon soldiers was perceived, and the first international treaties on the rules of war were signed. Punishment for violations of these rules began to be imposed. One of the earliest complete records of a war crimes trial as such involved Major Henry Wirz, the Swiss doctor who was in charge of the Confederate army's infamous Andersonville prison camp during the Civil War. A Union court-martial headed by Major General Lew Wallace (the author of Ben-Hur) tried and convicted Wirz of murder and mistreatment of prisoners "in violation of the laws and customs of war," which had just been defined in the Lieber Code, discussed above. Wirz raised the defense of superior orders, but the court rejected the claim, and he was hanged for his crimes.

The British army tried some of its soldiers for killing prisoners and civilians during the Boer War (commemorated in the 1980 Australian film Breaker Morant), and the American army held trials in the Philippines to punish atrocities committed by its soldiers during the insurrection of 1899–1902. A limited effort was made to try war criminals after World War 1. But it was left to German courts to try their own soldiers, and the defendants were treated quite leniently or were acquitted, as described above.

The most important group of war crimes trials took place after World War II. The Allied powers issued the "Moscow Declaration" in October 1943, announcing that those accused of war crimes would be "brought back to the scene of their crimes and judged on the spot by the peoples whom they have outraged." The declaration also specified that the Allies would take action against the "major criminals whose offenses have no particular geographical localization."

The United Nations War Crimes Commission was established in 1943 to gather evidence of war crimes for later use. It was chiefly concerned with the committing by lower-level officials or soldiers of such crimes as mistreatment of prisoners of war, atrocities against civilians, or execution of hostages.

The Allied powers engaged in considerable debate about what to do about the higherechelon leaders. As late as April 1945 the British cabinet voted to shoot the chief Nazi leaders on sight, even if they surrendered, rather than hold elaborate trials. But the Americans and Soviets insisted on an international military tribunal, and the British eventually acceded. The procedures for trying the cases were worked out in London in July and August 1945. An international military tribunal made up of representatives of the four major powers (the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France) would try the major political and military leaders of the German government. The charges determined by the London Conference included (1) crimes against peace; (2) war crimes; and (3) crimes against humanity, as defined above.

Twenty-two leading members of the German government were tried at Nuremberg between November 1945 and August 1946. Nineteen were found guilty, and twelve were sentenced to death by hanging, including Hermann Göring, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hans Frank, Wilhelm Frick, Alfred Jodl, and Martin Bormann, the last tried in absentia.

The specific war crimes of which the Nazi leaders were found guilty included the killing of captured Allied soldiers and prisoners of war, the massacre of hostages in occupied territories, the murder and ill treatment of civilian populations, the deportation of civilians for use as slave labor, and, of course, the systematic killing of the Jewish population of occupied Europe. The tribunal found the defendants guilty of these war crimes not only on the basis of violations of the Hague and Geneva conventions, but also because they violated the customary rules of war between nations. The terms of the Hague and Geneva conventions applied only if all belligerents were parties to them, whereas they had not been explicitly ratified by the Soviet Union and some other countries involved in the war.

The rules of land warfare expressed in the (Hague) convention undoubtedly represented an advance over existing international law at the time of their adoption. But the convention expressly stated that it was an attempt "to revise the general laws and customs of war" which it thus recognized to be then existing; but by 1939 these rules laid down in the convention were recognized by all civilized nations and were regarded as being declaratory of the laws and customs of war. (Trial of the Major War Criminals, vol. 1, pp. 253–254)

The formation of the International Military Tribunal was an important step in the punishment of war crimes. First, it showed that the Hague and Geneva conventions were an embodiment of international law that could be enforced on an international level. Prior war crimes trials had been held by individual nations applying their own law to their own soldiers or those of the enemy.

Second, persons were put on trial for violating international law even though their own domestic law permitted those acts. As explained by Telford Taylor, chief counsel for the prosecution at Nuremberg, "individuals may be held criminally liable under international law, even though their conduct was valid under, or even required by, domestic law" (Taylor, p. 82).

Third, the Nuremberg trials expanded individual liability for war crimes far beyond the acts of individual soldiers committing atrocities. Contrary to popular belief, the Nuremberg tribunal was not the first court to declare that superior orders was not a defense to a war crime: that defense had been rejected in the trial of Major Wirz and in the Llandovery Castle case decided by the Leipzig court in 1921. Indeed, the domestic law of Great Britain, the United States, and Prussia had long since held that a person does not escape liability for a crime by insisting that he was following orders. What the Nuremberg tribunal did do was to apply the converse of the superior-orders rule: namely, that the persons giving the orders, up to and including the political leaders of the nations, could also be guilty of war crimes. Thus, among those found guilty were German generals who had ordered the killing of prisoners of war, the civil administrators of occupied territories, and the economic ministers who had exploited slave labor. In addition to the trial of the major criminals, the Allies decided that lower-level German officials should be tried by national or occupation courts of each occupying power.

After the major trials in Nuremberg, American military tribunals held 809 trials in both Germany and Japan, involving 1,600 defendants; the British held 524 trials involving 937; and the French tried 2,107 individuals (Trials of War Criminals; United Nations, War Crimes Commission). It is estimated that ten thousand persons were tried for war crimes in Europe and the Far East between 1945 and 1950.

In Europe, the individuals tried included soldiers who killed prisoners, civilians, and hostages, officers who did not properly restrain their subordinates, doctors who conducted illegal medical experiments on prisoners, judges who enforced racial laws against Jews and other nationalities, industrialists who exploited slave labor, and even the manufacturers of the Zyklon B gas that was used to kill Jews and Allied nationals in concentration camps.

Similar trials took place in the Far East. An international military tribunal for the Far East tried the leading Japanese political leaders and generals on the same charges as those heard in Nuremberg. A number of the defendants—particularly some of the generals—were found guilty of committing atrocities against civilians in China, Borneo, and the Philippines, of mistreating and starving prisoners of war, or of disregarding their duty to protect civilians and prisoners under their jurisdiction.

Other trials were held by military commissions in occupied territories. The most famous was the trial of General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the Japanese commander of the Philippines in 1944 and 1945. Yamashita was found guilty of "unlawfully disregard[ing] and fail[ing] to discharge his duty as commander in chief to control the operations of the members of his command, permitting them to commit brutal atrocities" (In re Yamashita, 327 U.S. 1, 13–14 (1946)). It appeared that Yamashita had poor communication with his troops and little opportunity to control them after the American invasion of Luzon. Nevertheless, he was found guilty of war crimes based on the atrocities committed by his troops. His lawyers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to intervene, over famous dissents by Justices Frank Murphy and Wiley Rutledge.

One of the most significant war crimes trial after the 1940s was that of Adolf Eichmann, kidnapped from Argentina by Israeli agents and tried in Jerusalem in 1961. There was no question that Eichmann was personally involved in—and therefore responsible for—the killing of millions of Jews from occupied countries. The only legal issue of any significance was whether Israel had jurisdiction to try him. Since he was charged with crimes against the Jewish people, the Israeli court had no difficulty in finding that it could act. "The connection between the State of Israel and the Jewish people needs no explanation" (Friedman, p. 1633).

The issue of war crimes became more significant for Americans during the Vietnam War. The best-known episode occurred when an American military company invaded the small hamlet of Son My (My Lai) in South Vietnam in March 1968 and killed virtually every inhabitant, including women, children, and old men, a total of about four hundred persons. The victims were defenseless, made no effort to fight the Americans, and were not hostile. According to testimony at the court-martial of Lieutenant William Calley, Jr., held in March 1971, Calley had ordered his men to kill everyone and had personally killed a number of the inhabitants, including a two-year-old child. He was found guilty of the premeditated murder of twenty-two Vietnamese civilians and sentenced to life imprisonment. The sentence was reduced to twenty years' imprisonment by the commanding general of Fort Benning, and was further reduced to ten years by the secretary of the army. Calley was paroled after serving one-third of the sentence (Calley v. Callaway, 519 F. 2d 184 (5th Cir. 1975)).

Three other persons were tried for their involvement in the Son My episode, but all were acquitted of the charges: Captain Ernest Medina, the company commander who denied having given Calley orders to kill, and two sergeants, Charles Hutto and David Mitchell. Thus, only Calley was found guilty of any charges. One other American soldier, marine private Michael Schwartz, was found guilty of killing twelve Vietnamese villagers in a separate incident at Danang.

There was considerable debate about the legality under international law of American bombing of North Vietnamese cities, but most experts believed that it was no different or worse than Allied bombings during World War II. American treatment of Vietcong prisoners raised more serious problems, and one American lieutenant, James Duffy, admitted during his court-martial that he had ordered a prisoner to be killed. He was acquitted after other officers testified that they too had been ordered to take no prisoners in combat.

In the 1990s, war crimes trials were held in both Yugoslavia and Rwanda, following widespread atrocities against civilian populations in both counties. The U.N. Security Counsel established special tribunals with defined jurisdiction to try those responsible for mass killings and other offenses, including deportation and rape. The tribunals were known as the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) (U.N. Doc. S/PV. 3217 (1993)) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) (U.N. Doc. S/RES/955 (1994)). Over one hundred individuals were indicted by the ICTY, including the former president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, for his actions in ordering the persecution of Albanian civilians in Kosovo, including the murder and forced removal of many Kosovo Albanian citizens. The trials produced important new rulings on international crimes, including the decision that rape is a crime against humanity (Prosecutor v. Kunaric) and that a crime against humanity can be committed in purely internal conflicts by local militias who are acting for the goals of a foreign power, even if not under their direction (Prosecutor v. Tadic).

By the end of 2000, the ICTR had indicted close to fifty individuals for genocide and crimes against humanity following the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis by the Hutudominated government in 1994. Half of the Rwanda cabinet in power at the time, including the former Prime Minister, Jean Kambanda, were indicted for genocide. (A much smaller number of Hutu noncombatants were killed by avenging Tutsis, and Louise Arbour, the former chief prosecutor of the ICTR urged that evenhanded justice required their indictment as well.)

Defining and punishing war crimes has remained an anomalous undertaking. Nations encourage soldiers to kill in war, but try to limit their methods and targets. We allow depersonalized mass bombings of cities, which can kill thousands of defenseless civilians, but we punish individual acts of soldiers who actually confront their victims, and we stockpile weapons far worse than the poisoned arrows prohibited in Roman times. With the increase of ferocious wars of liberation, having no distinct battle lines, and with the growing number of guerrilla armies who fight without uniforms or insignia, the formal rules of the Hague and Geneva conventions may seem outdated. But the need for effective and principled control over atrocities and excesses in armed conflicts of any kind continues.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal LawWar Crimes - War Crimes Without A Formal War, Historical Development, The Lieber Code And The Development Of International Treaties