What Are War Crimes?

What are War Crimes?

APRIL 18, 2019


War crimes include genocide, crimes against humanity, and mistreatment of civilians or combatants during war. Genocide is the most severe of these crimes.

The rules regarding the conduct of war and war crimes were first discussed at The Hague, Netherlands in 1899 and 1907, respectively. These, along with the Geneva Conventions, formed the framework for the new body of international law governing conduct during war. Previous to these International Union of Hague Peace Conferences, atrocities committed during wars were considered to be regrettable, but just a natural part of the horrors of war.

The main effect of the Hague Conventions was the banning of certain types of technology in wars; dropping bombs from the air, using chemicals, and hollow point bullets were outlawed. The Conventions set up a permanent Court of Arbitration.

Geneva Conventions

The Geneva Protocol, signed in 1925, permanently banned all chemical and biological warfare. This was passed in response to the use of mustard gas in WWI. Subsequently, four treaties and three more protocols were passed. The term “Geneva Conventions” refers to the fourth treaty of 1949, which updated the standards for humanitarian treatment of the victims of war. The articles define the basic rights of captives during a military conflict, establish protections for the wounded, and list protections for civilians. The treaties were ratified by 194 nations, some with reservations.

Summary of War Crimes

Article 147 of the Geneva Conventions summarizes war crimes as:

Willful killing, torture or inhuman treatment, including… willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health, unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement of a protected person, compelling a protected person to serve in the forces of a hostile power, or willfully depriving a protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial, …taking of hostages and extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly.

Some examples of war crimes includes as attacking those displaying a truce flag and also using a truce flag as a ruse to attack. Attacking soldiers while parachuting is not a war crime, but attacking those who have ejected from a damaged aircraft and surrendering when on the ground is a war crime. Mistreating prisoners of war is forbidden as is mistreatment of civilians. Mistreatment of prisoners or civilians may be part of mass murder or genocide, but these are covered more fully under crimes against humanity.

Crimes Against Humanity

Crimes against humanity are not isolated instances (they may be war crimes) but rather a part of government policy or widespread practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government. Widespread and systematic murder, torture, rape, political, racial, or religious persecution may fall under the category of crimes against humanity. The term was first applied by the Allies in 1915 to the genocide of Armenians by the Ottoman Empire.

Those accused of war crimes have referred to “Victor’s Justice” to criticize war crime trials. They maintain that only the victorious nation in a conflict is allowed to bring charges of war crimes, although atrocities were committed by both sides.


Arjun is an independent researcher, writer, speaker and a consciousness activist. He writes for Activist Post and Natural Blaze.