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File:Polish hostages preparing by Nazi Germans for mass execution 1940.jpg

A picture taken by the Polish Underground of Nazi Secret Police rounding up Polish intelligentsia at Palmiry near Warsaw in 1940 for mass execution (German AB-Aktion in occupied Poland).

War crimes are serious violations of the laws applicable in armed conflict (Also known as International humanitarian law) giving rise to individual criminal responsibility. Examples of such conduct includes "murder, the ill-treatment or deportation of civilian residents of an occupied territory to slave labor camps", "the murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war", the killing of hostages, "the wanton destruction of cities, towns and villages, and any devastation not justified by military, or civilian necessity".[1]

Similar concepts, such as perfidy, have existed for many centuries as customs between civilized countries, but these customs were first codified as international law in the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. The modern concept of a war crime was further developed under the auspices of the Nuremberg Trials based on the definition in the London Charter that was published on August 8, 1945. (Also see Nuremberg Principles.) Along with war crimes the charter also defined crimes against peace and crimes against humanity, which are often committed during wars and in concert with war crimes.

Article 22 of the Hague IV ("Laws of War: Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague IV); October 18, 1907") states that "The right of belligerents to adopt means of injuring the enemy is not unlimited"[2] and over the last century many other treaties have introduced positive laws that place constraints on belligerents (see International treaties on the laws of war). Some of the provisions, such as those in the Hague, the Geneva, and Genocide Conventions, are considered to be part of customary international law, and are binding on all.[3][4] Others are only binding on individuals if the belligerent power to which they belong is a party to the treaty which introduced the constraint.


File:Chinese killed by Japanese Army in a ditch, Hsuchow.jpg

Hsuchow, China, 1938. A ditch full of the bodies of Chinese civilians, killed by Japanese soldiers.[5]

Early example

The trial of Peter von Hagenbach by an ad hoc tribunal of the Holy Roman Empire in 1474, was the first “international” war crimes trial, and also of command responsibility. He was convicted and beheaded for crimes that "he as a knight was deemed to have a duty to prevent", although he had argued that he was only "following orders".

Hague Conventions

The Hague Conventions were international treaties negotiated at the First and Second Peace Conferences at The Hague, Netherlands in 1899 and 1907, respectively, and were, along with the First and Second Geneva Conventions (1864 and 1909), among the first formal statements of the laws of war and war crimes in the nascent body of secular international law.

Geneva Conventions

The Geneva Conventions are four related treaties adopted between 1864 and 1949 that represent a legal basis for International Law with regard to conduct of warfare. Not all nations are signatories to the GC, and as such retain different codes and values with regard to wartime conduct. Some signatories have routinely violated the Geneva Conventions in a way which either uses the ambiguities of law or political maneuvering to sidestep the laws' formalities and principles.

All conventions were revised and expanded in 1949.

Leipzig War Crimes Trial

Several German military commanders of the First World War were tried in 1921 by the German Supreme Court for war crimes.

London Charter / Nuremberg Trials 1945

The modern concept of war crime was further developed under the auspices of the Nuremberg Trials based on the definition in the London Charter that was published on August 8, 1945. (Also see Nuremberg Principles.) Along with war crimes the charter also defined crimes against peace and crimes against humanity, which are often committed during wars and in concert with war crimes.

International Military Tribunal for the Far East 1946

Also known as the Tokyo Trial, the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal or simply as the Tribunal, it was convened on May 3, 1946 to try the leaders of the Empire of Japan for three types of crimes: "Class A" (crimes against peace), "Class B" (war crimes), and "Class C" (crimes against humanity), committed during World War II.

International Criminal Court 2002

File:My Lai massacre.jpg

Bodies of some of the hundreds of Vietnamese villagers who were murdered by U.S. soldiers during the My Lai Massacre

On July 1, 2002, the International Criminal Court, a treaty-based court located in The Hague, came into being for the prosecution of war crimes committed on or after that date. Several nations, most notably the United States, China, Russia, and Israel, have criticized the court. The United States still participates as an observer. Article 12 of the Rome Statute provides jurisdiction over the citizens of non-contracting states in the event that they are accused of committing crimes in the territory of one of the state parties.[6]

However the court only has jurisdiction over these crimes where they are "part of a plan or policy or as part of a large-scale commission of such crimes".[7]

Prominent indictees

Heads of state & government

To date, the present and former heads of state and heads of government that have been charged with war crimes include:

  • Germany Großadmiral Karl Dönitz, Prime Ministers Generals Hideki Tojo and Kuniaki Koiso of the Empire of Japan in the aftermath of World War II.
  • Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milošević was brought to trial for alleged war crimes, but died as essentially an innocent man in custody on March 11, 2006 under suspicious circumstances and after mounting a vigorous defense, before the trial could be concluded after more than 4 years of proceedings.
  • Former Liberian President Charles G. Taylor was also brought to the Hague charged with war crimes; his trial was provisionally scheduled to begin in April 2007, but was postponed until June 2007 to allow the defense more time to prepare, and is now ongoing.
  • Former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadžić was arrested in Belgrade on 18 July 2008 and brought before Belgrade’s War Crimes Court a few days after. He was extradited to the Netherlands, and is currently in The Hague, in the custody of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. He has not yet entered a plea; his next appearance was on 29 August 2008.
Other prominent indictees


File:Malmedy Massacre.jpg

Aftermath of the Malmedy massacre (1944)

War Crimes are those serious violations of the rules of customary and treaty law concerning international humanitarian law that have become accepted as criminal offences for which there is individual responsibility. [8] Colloquial definitions of war crime include violations of established protections of the laws of war, but also include failures to adhere to norms of procedure and rules of battle, such as attacking those displaying a peaceful flag of truce, or using that same flag as a ruse of war to mount an attack. Attacking enemy troops while they are being deployed by way of a parachute is not a war crime.[9] However, Protocol I, Article 42 of the Geneva Conventions explicitly forbids attacking parachutists who eject from damaged airplanes, and surrendering parachutists once landed.[10] War crimes include such acts as mistreatment of prisoners of war or civilians. War crimes are sometimes part of instances of mass murder and genocide though these crimes are more broadly covered underinternational humanitarian law described as crimes against humanity.

File:Fall of Mickiewicz Monument (1940).jpg

Destruction of Adam Mickiewicz Monument in Cracow, Poland by German forces on August 17, 1940.

War crimes are significant in international humanitarian law[11] because it is an area where international tribunals such as the Nuremberg Trials andTokyo trials have been convened. Recent examples are the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which were established by the UN Security Council acting under Chapter VIII of the UN Charter.

Under the Nuremberg Principles, war crimes are different from crimes against peace which is planning, preparing, initiating, or waging a war of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements, or assurances. Because the definition of a state of "war" may be debated, the term "war crime" itself has seen different usage under different systems of international and military law. It has some degree of application outside of what some may consider to be a state of "war," but in areas where conflicts persist enough to constitute social instability.

The legalities of war have sometimes been accused of containing favoritism toward the winners ("Victor's justice")[12], as certain controversies have not been ruled as war crimes. Some examples[who?]include the Allies' destruction of civilian Axis targets during World War I[citation needed] and World War II (the firebombing of the German city of Dresden is one such example), the use of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II[13]; the use of Agent Orange against civilian targets in the Vietnam war; the mass killing of Biharies by Kader Siddique and Mukti Bahini[14] before or after victory of Bangladesh Liberation War in Bangladesh between 1971 and 1972; and the Indonesian occupation of East Timor between 1976 and 1999.

Another example is the Allied re-designation of German POWs (under the protection of the Geneva conventions) into Disarmed Enemy Forces (allegedly unprotected by the Geneva conventions), many of which then were used for forced labor such as clearing minefields. By December 1945 it was estimated by French authorities that 2,000 German prisoners were being killed or maimed each month in mine-clearing accidents.[15]

See also


  1. Gary D. Solish (2010) The Law of Armed Conflict: International Humanitarian Law in War, Cambridge University Press ISBN: 9780521870887 pp. 301-303
  2. "The Avalon Prject - Laws of War : Laws and Customs of War on Land (Hague IV); October 18, 1907". Retrieved 2010-05-03.
  3. Judgement: The Law Relating to War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity contained in the Avalon Project archive at Yale Law School. "but by 1939 these rules laid down in the [Hague] Convention [of 1907] were recognised by all civilized nations, and were regarded as being declaratory of the laws and customs of war"
  4. "Report Of The Secretary-General Pursuant To Paragraph 2 Of Security Council Resolution 808 (1993)". S/25704. United Nations. 3 MAY 1993. Retrieved 13 October 2010. "35. The part of conventional international humanitarian law which has beyond doubt become part of international customary law is the law applicable in armed conflict as embodied in: the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949 for the Protection of War Victims; the Hague Convention (IV) Respecting the Laws and Customs of War on Land and the Regulations annexed thereto of 18 October 1907; the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of 9 December 1948; and the Charter of the International Military Tribunal of 8 August 1945."
  5. It may be pointless to try to establish which World War Two Axis aggressor, Germany or Japan, was the more brutal to the peoples it victimised. The Germans killed six million Jews and 20 million Russians [i.e. Soviet citizens]; the Japanese slaughtered as many as 30 million Filipinos, Malays, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Indonesians and Burmese, at least 23 million of them ethnic Chinese. Both nations looted the countries they conquered on a monumental scale, though Japan plundered more, over a longer period, than the Nazis. Both conquerors enslaved millions and exploited them as forced labourers—and, in the case of the Japanese, as [forced] prostitutes for front-line troops. Johnson, Looting of Asia
  6. "Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, 1998". UN Treaty Organization. Retrieved 13 October 2010.
  7. Rome Statute, Part II, Article 8.
  8. Shaw, M.N (2008). [ International Law]. Cambridge University Press. pp. 433-434. ISBN 978-0-521-89929-1.
  9. From the Library of Congress, Military Legal Resources.[1]
  10. Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflict, International Committee of the Red Cross, Geneva, Switzerland.(Protocol I)
  11. The Program for Humanitarian Policy and Conflict Research, "Brief Primer on IHL" Accessed at
  12. Zolo, Danilo (November 2, 2009). Victors' Justice: From Nuremberg to Baghdad. Verso. ISBN 9781844673179.
  13. 'The Atomic Bombing, The Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal and the Shimoda Case: Lessons for Anti-Nuclear Legal Movements' by Yuki Tanaka and Richard Falk
  14. Interview With History by Oriana Fallaci-
  15. S. P. MacKenzie "The Treatment of Prisoners of War in World War II" The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 66, No. 3. (Sep., 1994), pp. 487-520.


External links

Template:International Criminal Law

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