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War Crimes

War Crimes Without A Formal War, Historical Development, The Lieber Code And The Development Of International Treaties

The most authoritative definition of war crimes was formulated in the London Charter of 8 August 1945, which established the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. It was adopted in 1946 by the General Assembly of the United Nations in a unanimous resolution approving of the work of the Nuremberg Tribunal:

War Crimes: Violations of the laws or customs of law which include, but are not limited to, murder, ill treatment, or deportation to slave labour or for any other purpose of 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. (Trial of the Major War Criminals, vol. 1, p. 11)

War crimes under this definition, which follows the traditional doctrine under international law, have the following elements: (1) they are acts of violence against civilian populations, prisoners of war, or in some cases enemy soldiers in the field; (2) they are committed primarily by military personnel; (3) they are in violation of the laws and customs of war; (4) they are not justified by military necessity; and (5) they often involve weapons or military methods of unusual cruelty or devastation.

In the broadest sense, a war crime is any act of violence by military personnel (or by informal semi-military militia) that exceeds the rules of war. War is by its very nature violent, and military acts in wartime—killing, capture, and destruction—would otherwise be considered criminal under the laws of all civilized societies. But every society suspends the application of its criminal law when dealing with military acts in time of war.

However, whatever immunity is accorded these military acts in war extends only to conduct that conforms to the rules of war (Taylor, pp. 19–20). Thus, the incidental killing of civilians in a bombing raid as part of a military operation is not murder because it is justified by military necessity. But the deliberate killing of defenseless civilians by infantrymen, as in Son My (otherwise known as My Lai) in Vietnam or by militia groups in Bosnia or Kosovo, remains what it always was: murder, because the immunity ordinarily accorded military operations did not apply since the acts violated the rules of war. In fact, Lieutenant William Calley, Jr., was tried and convicted by an American military court-martial of various acts of premeditated murder as a result of the killings at Son My, under the section of the Uniform Code of Military Justice dealing with murder and manslaughter (United States v. Calley, 22 U.S.C.M.A. 534, 48 C.M.R. 19 (1973)). He was not charged with a "war crime" as such or tried by a special international tribunal. Rather, he was tried for committing murder by an army court-martial in the same way that a soldier who killed a fellow soldier or a civilian would have been treated for nonmilitary acts committed in that theater of operations.

The narrow definition of war crimes quoted above (excesses by military personnel in the field or atrocities against civilians generally) has been expanded to cover two additional broad categories: (1) crimes against peace, or the "planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties"; and (2) crimes against humanity, or "murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation or other inhuman acts done against any civilian population" (Trial of the Major War Criminals, vol. 1, p. 11).

A more comprehensive definition of war crimes that includes all elements of these offenses is contained in the charter for the International Criminal Court adopted in Rome in the summer of 1998 by the United Nations Diplomatic Conference (U.N. Doc. A/Conf. 183/9, 17 July 1998). The purpose of the Rome conference was to create the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a permanent international judicial body to try war crimes and other international crimes as an alternate to the ad hoc tribunals set up to deal with specific violations of the rules of war in local areas such as Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In the process, the Rome treaty had to define the jurisdiction of the ICC and the defined circumstances under which it would be empowered to act. The definitions of the crimes under its jurisdiction largely follow the Nuremberg model: (a) the crime of genocide; (b) crimes against humanity; (c) war crimes; (d) the crime of aggression (Part 2, Article 5 (1)). However, as noted below, the definitions of these concepts was broadened considerably in the ICC charter.

By the end of 2000, 139 states had signed the Rome treaty containing the broader definitions, although only twenty-seven states had formally ratified it (the treaty needs sixty formal ratifications before it comes into effect). On 31 December 2000, President Bill Clinton signed the treaty on behalf of the United States over objections of both his own Department of Defense and leading members of the U.S. Senate. The senators were concerned that the treaty would apply to nations that did not ratify it and that American soldiers or political leaders might be brought before an international court (without all of the constitutional protections) for actions taken in foreign wars or even for actions taken in their own states (such as a governor who sanctioned the death penalty against minors, mentally retarded prisoners, or against a disproportionate number of a racial or ethnic group).

The broader definition of war crimes generally accepted by the international community includes the following offenses:

Crimes against peace. The concept of "crimes against peace" or "aggression" relate only to the initiation of war and not to its later conduct. Such offenses are primarily crimes of the politically responsible leaders of a country. The theory is of comparatively recent origin, although it is related to the notion of the "just war," described below. The Nuremberg Tribunal had considerable difficulty in determining the origin of the concept of "crimes against peace" in international law. It relied chiefly on the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which had condemned a "recourse to war for the solution of international controversies" (Article I).

Crimes against humanity. The concept of crimes against humanity does not always or necessarily mean a crime committed during a war. If a nation engages in the systematic slaughter of its own inhabitants (such as the systematic oppression by the Nazis of German Jews and Gypsies before war began in 1939, or the Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1915), those responsible would be guilty of "crimes against humanity" even if there were no international hostilities at the same time. The concept of genocide—killing or causing serious injury to members of a distinct national, ethnic, or racial group or inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction—grew out of the Nuremberg Tribunal's application of the concept of crimes against humanity. It may be the most typical form of a crime against humanity since a government or state committing such crimes will generally do so against distinct nationalities or ethnic groups, rather than against its own people or against humanity in general. However, crimes against humanity is a broader concept since it covers murder, enslavement, deportation, imprisonment, torture, rape, or other persecution of any identifiable group (political, cultural, gender), and not merely a national or ethnic group covered by the crime of genocide. Thus the ICC charter contains a very broad definition of crimes against humanity, including any "widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population" (Article 7(1)). The ICC definition would cover the destruction of the Cambodian population by the Pol Pot regime in the 1970s, for example, and the mass disappearances of political opponents of military governments in Argentina and Chile in the same period, even though such crimes might not fit within the definition of genocide.

The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution condemning genocide, and the Genocide Convention was drafted and acceded to by many nations, although not by the United States (Article II). If crimes against humanity take place in the midst of a war and are directed against civilian populations of another country, these acts may constitute both war crimes and crimes against humanity. In fact, the Nuremberg Tribunal frequently combined its discussion of "war crimes and crimes against humanity" under a single heading and found various persons guilty of both counts under a single discussion of the evidence.


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Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationCrime and Criminal Law