War Crimes: An End in Sight?

By Dufour, Joanne M. | Social Education, November-December 2001 | Go to article overview

War Crimes: An End in Sight?


Dufour, Joanne M., Social Education


WILL WE HAVE A WORLD guided by the role of law? Will a time come when crimes of war will be punished in a court of law? When acts of terrorism can be handled by an international tribunal rather than with a military response? In the lifetime of our students, these things might happen. This article presents background information and resources for a class discussion or study on war crimes and developments in creating the International Criminal Court.

Let us begin with some definitions. The term war crimes can produce horrific images for some students: concentration camps, ethnic cleansing, execution of prisoners, rape, and the bombardment of cities. In many ways, these images match the legal definitions of the term, but international law draws lines that do not always correspond to our own sense of heinous kinds of behavior.

First, what is international law? It is a body of conventions, treaties, and standards that play a central role in promoting economic and social developments, as well as international peace and security, among the nations of the world. Many treaties brought about by the United Nations (UN) form the basis of the law governing relations among nations, but treaties and agreements that states have made with other states also fall into this category.

War crimes are those violations of the laws of war--or international humanitarian law--that incur individual criminal responsibility. (1) Although limitations on the conduct of armed conflict date back at least to China in the sixth century BC, by the time of World War I, states had accepted that certain violations of the laws of war--many of which had been codified in the Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907--were crimes. War crimes were further codified in the Geneva Conventions, adopted, and expanded throughout the twentieth century.

Nuremberg War Crimes Tribunal

The trials held in Nuremberg, Germany, at the end of World War II created an important precedent for the international treatment of war crimes. The prosecution of Nazi atrocities before the International Military Tribunal, and the subsequent Nuremberg tribunals, established several key principles that continue to influence international conduct. Among these are the notions that

* the human rights of individuals and groups are a matter of international concern;

* the international community's interest in preventing or punishing offenses against humanity committed within a state can supersede any concept of national sovereignty;

* not just states but also individuals can be held accountable under international law for their role in genocide and other atrocities; and

* "following orders" is no defense of such accountability. (2)

More than fifty years later, Nuremberg is significant because it was the first prosecution for the systematic persecution and barbarity against a state's own nationals that we have come to call "crimes against humanity" It set the precedent for the international criminalization of atrocities against civilians, wherever and whenever they occur. Before Nuremberg, it was a cardinal principle of international law that a state's treatment of its own nationals or citizens was not a matter of international concern. The international legal universe of 1945 was a state-centered one, in which international law meant law between and among states, alone and exclusively. Nuremberg marks the beginning of the great movement of our times to protect individuals against oppression by their own governments--a movement that has come to fruition in the development of international human rights law and of international humanitarian law and in the blending of the two in an emergent international criminal law. (3)

The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, made up of representatives of the four victorious allied powers, introduced the novel concept of individual legal accountability before an international body for atrocities committed in wartime. …

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