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What is a War Crime?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A war crime is a crime which is committed during the course of a war, either by a civilian or a member of the military. War crimes have been a problem throughout human history, although prosecution of such crimes only really emerged in the 20th century, thanks to general public outrage about crimes committed by German and Japanese forces during the Second World War. Unfortunately, this term can be a bit challenging to define, as it is somewhat nebulous. War crimes are also notoriously hard to prosecute and prove.

Most governments agree that any action which violates international conventions and agreements about warfare is a war crime. For example, abuse of prisoners of war is outlawed by the Geneva Convention, and therefore considered a war crime. Perfidy, the act of willfully deceiving the enemy, is also a war crime. Crimes against humanity such as torture, genocide, mass deportation, and other acts of persecution are also considered war crimes when they occur during a period of war.

Ideally, individual nations should prosecute their own war criminals, and in several countries, tribunals have been established after periods of war to acquit or convict and sentence suspected war criminals. In other instances, neutral courts such as those in the Hague have tried war criminals after a period of war. Trials typically include testimony from victims, if possible, along with witnesses and professionals such as forensic anthropologists who analyze evidence at suspected sites of criminal activity. Sentences for war crimes vary, depending on the magnitude of the crime and the will of the court.

The first serious attempts to prosecute war criminals occurred after the First World War, and they were largely considered a failure. After the Second World War, however, a tribunal was arranged in Buremburg, Germany, for the purpose of trying suspected war criminals. The tribunal was run by the Allied occupying forces, and a number of prominent Nazis were tried during the Nuremberg trials, including Hermann Göring and Rudolf Hess. This tribunal set the stage for future prosecutions of suspected war criminals, and caused a shift in international attitudes about the concept of war crime.

Internationally, organizations such as the UN may monitor conflict zones for signs of war crimes. In some cases, suspected war criminals may be remanded to a neutral court such as the International Criminal Court in the Hague, if the United Nations feels that they will not be tried appropriately in their home nations. This international court has very specifically spelled out authorities, to ensure that its power is not abused.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By aplenty — On Feb 23, 2011

@ submariner- The push to charge president bush with war crimes is centered around the use of torture in the Iraq, Afghanistan Wars. I would not call it a fringe movement, although I do not know how many people support the bush war crimes prosecution compared to the revelation of President Obama's birth certificate.

Essentially a number of human rights activists and political opponents want to try Bush and members of his administration for violating the war crimes act of 1996 through the abuse of military detainees. The penalties for violating this American law are stiff and can include death, but the Bush Administration does not believe it has violated the war crimes law. Bush asked his legal team what the bounds of the law were so he could go right up to those bounds without going over them. In the end, it is doubtful that he will be subject to a war crimes trial.

By submariner — On Feb 20, 2011

So what is the deal with the Bush war crimes? I have heard a little about potentially trying to try the bush administration for war crimes, but I don't know the details. What is this controversy about? Is it a real movement, or is it a fringe movement similar to the birther movement?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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