Decider: What is a War Crime?

For all the good the United Nations does, it hasn’t been able to stop civil wars and military conflicts from happening. From Afghanistan to Ukraine, these conflicts may not share borders but the people at their heart, whose lives are uprooted by the war, remain the same.

And it is these people against whom war crimes are committed. Here’s how to define and prosecute this civil and transnational crime.

What is a War Crime?

The United Nations defines a war crime as a breach of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) that violates the rights of civilians or enemy troops during a civil or international armed conflict.

‘Armed conflict’ is the key phrase here. You can’t constitute an excessive injury or suffering a war crime if it didn’t occur during an armed conflict. For instance, if the injury occurred during a genocide, it would not constitute a war crime.

Moreover, something can only be tried as a war crime if the number of civilian casualties far exceeds the military goals of the attack. For instance, a school bombing won’t be declared a war crime if the other side gained a serious military advantage and the school was closed and empty at the time of the attack.

The Ruins of Heavily Shelled and Bombed Building in a Residential Neighborhood of Syria

The Four Geneva Conventions (1949)

The four Geneva Conventions were introduced to clarify war crimes, enabling the International Criminal Court (ICC) and Yugoslavia Tribunal to hold criminals guilty of these crimes accountable on behalf of the states where they were committed.

Article 147 of the fourth convention defines a war crime as intentional murder, torture, ill-treatment, deportation, or confinement of a ‘protected’ individual. This also includes any destruction of property or act that doesn’t justify ‘military necessity’. Many unnecessary actions during armed conflict, say forceful impregnation, are now considered a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.

Taking War Crimes to the ICC

Although denying a fair trial for a war crime is considered another war crime, most war crimes never reach a guilty verdict. This could be due to several reasons, such as:

  • Lack of concrete evidence supporting the plaintiff’s claim beyond a reasonable doubt.
  • The burden of proof is on the plaintiff to prove whether the crime was intentional.
  • Power politics

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