Leon Friedman. Encyclopedia of Crime and Justice. Editor: Joshua Dressler. 2nd edition. Volume 4. New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2002.
The most authoritative definition of war crimes was formulated in the London Charter of 8 August 1945, which established the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. It was adopted in 1946 by the General Assembly of the United Nations in a unanimous resolution approving of the work of the Nuremberg Tribunal:
War Crimes: Violations of the laws or customs of law which include, but are not limited to, murder, ill treatment, or deportation to slave labour or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns, or villages or devastation not justified by military necessity. (Trial of the Major War Criminals, vol. 1, p. 11)
War crimes under this definition, which follows the traditional doctrine under international law, have the following elements: (1) they are acts of violence against civilian populations, prisoners of war, or in some cases enemy soldiers in the field; (2) they are committed primarily by military personnel; (3) they are in violation of the laws and customs of war; (4) they are not justified by military necessity; and (5) they often involve weapons or military methods of unusual cruelty or devastation.
In the broadest sense, a war crime is any act of violence by military personnel (or by informal semi-military militia) that exceeds the rules of war. War is by its very nature violent, and military acts in wartime—killing, capture, and destruction—would otherwise be considered criminal under the laws of all civilized societies. But every society suspends the application of its criminal law when dealing with military acts in time of war.
However, whatever immunity is accorded these military acts in war extends only to conduct that conforms to the rules of war (Taylor, pp. 19-20). Thus, the incidental killing of civilians in a bombing raid as part of a military operation is not murder because it is justified by military necessity. But the deliberate killing of defenseless civilians by infantrymen, as in Son My (otherwise known as My Lai) in Vietnam or by militia groups in Bosnia or Kosovo, remains what it always was: murder, because the immunity ordinarily accorded military operations did not apply since the acts violated the rules of war. In fact, Lieutenant William Calley, Jr., was tried and convicted by an American military court-martial of various acts of premeditated murder as a result of the killings at Son My, under the section of the Uniform Code of Military Justice dealing with murder and manslaughter (United States v. Calley, 22 U.S.C.M.A. 534, 48 C.M.R. 19 (1973)). He was not charged with a “war crime” as such or tried by a special international tribunal. Rather, he was tried for committing murder by an army court-martial in the same way that a soldier who killed a fellow soldier or a civilian would have been treated for nonmilitary acts committed in that theater of operations.
The narrow definition of war crimes quoted above (excesses by military personnel in the field or atrocities against civilians generally) has been expanded to cover two additional broad categories: (1) crimes against peace, or the “planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties”; and (2) crimes against humanity, or “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation or other inhuman acts done against any civilian population” (Trial of the Major War Criminals, vol. 1, p. 11).
A more comprehensive definition of war crimes that includes all elements of these offenses is contained in the charter for the International Criminal Court adopted in Rome in the summer of 1998 by the United Nations Diplomatic Conference (U.N. Doc. A/Conf. 183/9, 17 July 1998). The purpose of the Rome conference was to create the International Criminal Court (ICC) as a permanent international judicial body to try war crimes and other international crimes as an alternate to the ad hoc tribunals set up to deal with specific violations of the rules of war in local areas such as Yugoslavia and Rwanda. In the process, the Rome treaty had to define the jurisdiction of the ICC and the defined circumstances under which it would be empowered to act. The definitions of the crimes under its jurisdiction largely follow the Nuremberg model: (a) the crime of genocide; (b) crimes against humanity; (c) war crimes; (d) the crime of aggression (Part 2, Article 5 (1)). However, as noted below, the definitions of these concepts was broadened considerably in the ICC charter.
By the end of 2000, 139 states had signed the Rome treaty containing the broader definitions, although only twenty-seven states had formally ratified it (the treaty needs sixty formal ratifications before it comes into effect). On 31 December 2000, President Bill Clinton signed the treaty on behalf of the United States over objections of both his own Department of Defense and leading members of the U.S. Senate. The senators were concerned that the treaty would apply to nations that did not ratify it and that American soldiers or political leaders might be brought before an international court (without all of the constitutional protections) for actions taken in foreign wars or even for actions taken in their own states (such as a governor who sanctioned the death penalty against minors, mentally retarded prisoners, or against a disproportionate number of a racial or ethnic group).
The broader definition of war crimes generally accepted by the international community includes the following offenses:
Crimes against peace. The concept of “crimes against peace” or “aggression” relate only to the initiation of war and not to its later conduct. Such offenses are primarily crimes of the politically responsible leaders of a country. The theory is of comparatively recent origin, although it is related to the notion of the “just war,” described below. The Nuremberg Tribunal had considerable difficulty in determining the origin of the concept of “crimes against peace” in international law. It relied chiefly on the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which had condemned a “recourse to war for the solution of international controversies” (Article I).
Crimes against humanity. The concept of crimes against humanity does not always or necessarily mean a crime committed during a war. If a nation engages in the systematic slaughter of its own inhabitants (such as the systematic oppression by the Nazis of German Jews and Gypsies before war began in 1939, or the Turkish massacre of Armenians in 1915), those responsible would be guilty of “crimes against humanity” even if there were no international hostilities at the same time. The concept of genocide—killing or causing serious injury to members of a distinct national, ethnic, or racial group or inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction—grew out of the Nuremberg Tribunal’s application of the concept of crimes against humanity. It may be the most typical form of a crime against humanity since a government or state committing such crimes will generally do so against distinct nationalities or ethnic groups, rather than against its own people or against humanity in general. However, crimes against humanity is a broader concept since it covers murder, enslavement, deportation, imprisonment, torture, rape, or other persecution of any identifiable group (political, cultural, gender), and not merely a national or ethnic group covered by the crime of genocide. Thus the ICC charter contains a very broad definition of crimes against humanity, including any “widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population” (Article 7(1)). The ICC definition would cover the destruction of the Cambodian population by the Pol Pot regime in the 1970s, for example, and the mass disappearances of political opponents of military governments in Argentina and Chile in the same period, even though such crimes might not fit within the definition of genocide.
The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution condemning genocide, and the Genocide Convention was drafted and acceded to by many nations, although not by the United States (Article II). If crimes against humanity take place in the midst of a war and are directed against civilian populations of another country, these acts may constitute both war crimes and crimes against humanity. In fact, the Nuremberg Tribunal frequently combined its discussion of “war crimes and crimes against humanity” under a single heading and found various persons guilty of both counts under a single discussion of the evidence.
War Crimes without a Formal War
Part of the problem in defining “war crimes” is that formal declarations of war, which generally preceded hostilities between states in earlier times, no longer occur. Thus there may be some doubt when a “war” as defined by international law is present. In addition, the “wars” of the latter part of the twentieth century were often civil wars (Rwanda, Sudan, Lebanon), guerrilla wars (Colombia, Peru, Nicaragua), and political conflicts (Cambodia, Argentina, Chile), with assistance sometimes given to one group from an outside power (Vietnam, Yugoslavia). The formal treaties and protocols drafted by the major powers were often one step behind in defining the circumstances under which war crimes took place. Thus, the Geneva Conventions of 1949 dealt primarily with conduct during an “international armed conflict.” The conventions contained a Common Article 3, which applied to all four treaties and covered “an armed conflict not of an international character” to which certain, but not all, of the prohibitions applied.
Later efforts to take account of the new types of armed conflicts often left significant gaps. Protocol II to the Geneva Convention proposed in 1977 would extend the protections of the 1949 conventions to victims of “internal wars,” a broader concept than “an armed conflict not of an international character” (Protocols Additional to the Geneva Convention of August 12, 1949 and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Non-International Armed Conflicts, June 10, 1977, 1125 U.N.T.S 609 (hereinafter Protocol II)). The definition of “internal wars” was as follows: “It shall apply to all armed conflicts which are not international and which take place in a territory of a high contracting party between its armed forces and dissident armed forces or other organized armed groups, which under responsible command exercise such control over a part of its territory as to enable them to carry out sustained and concerted military operations.” Therefore, there must be “dissident armed forces” or “organized armed forces” occupying territories in order to satisfy the definition of “internal war” under Protocol II. (The United States has not ratified Protocol II although over 120 states have acceded to it.)
The International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) broadened the predicate for punishing war crimes in its decision in Prosecutor v. Tadic (No. IT-94-1-T (Yugoslavia Tribunal Trial Chamber, August 10, 1995, affd No. IT-94-1-AR 72)). (Yugoslavia Tribunal, Appeals Chamber, 2 October, 1995, Tadic Appeal on Jurisdiction, reprinted at 35 I.L.M. 32 (1996) and appeal on the merits, 15 July 1999, reprinted in 38 I.L.M. 1518 (1999).) The Appeals Chamber held in the jurisdictional appeal that an armed conflict exists (and therefore the four Geneva Conventions apply) “when there is resort to armed force between states or protracted armed violence between governmental authorities and organized armed groups or between such groups within a state” (par. 70). Broadening the definition found in the Geneva Conventions and Protocol II, the Appeals Chamber of ICTY held that the technical requirements of an international armed conflict need not be present before the rules contained in those provisions can be applied. The court held that persons engaged in organized armed conflicts either of an international or local nature are bound by “Customary Rules of International Human Rights,” which can be applied by both local, ad hoc, and international courts in dealing with excesses against civilian groups or enemy soldiers.
In its second decision on the merits, the Appeals Chamber held that the Bosnian Serb militias were acting on behalf of the goals “and shared strategic objects” of the Serbian government in Belgrade (par. 153), even if they were not directly under the control of the Serbian military, thus bringing their actions within the prohibitions of the Geneva Conventions relating to “international armed conflicts.”
The Rome Charter of the ICC also broadens the definition of crimes against humanity by encompassing any attack upon a civilian population under the following circumstances: “a course of conduct involving the multiple commission of acts referred to in paragraph 1 [murder, enslavement, deportation, torture, rape, apartheid, disappearances, or other inhumane acts] against any civil population, pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy to commit such attack” (Article 7(2)(a)).
There are slight differences between crimes against humanity as defined in the Rome Charter and the statutes creating the international criminal tribunals for Yugoslavia (ICTY) (U.N. Doc. S/PV. 3217 (1993)) and Rwanda (ICTR) (U.N. Doc. S/RES/955 (1994)). The Rome Charter requires “a multiple commission of acts” against civilians, but it contains no requirement that the acts be committed in the context of an armed conflict. Nor does the ICTR statute require any such conflict. The ICTY statute does require an armed conflict before it can exercise jurisdiction, and also demands some kind of discriminatory motive on the part of the perpetrator, a requirement that is not found in the Rome Charter. But all three enactments greatly expand the defined circumstances under which international law against crimes of war can be applied.
In February 2001, a panel of the ICTY found that rape in and by itself could constitute a crime against humanity and found three Bosnian Serb soldiers guilty of enslaving and abusing hundreds of Muslim women from the town of Foca, near Sarajevo, during the Bosnian conflict. They were sentenced to twenty-eight, twenty, and twelve years’ imprisonment, respectively (Prosecutor v. Kunarac).
Although the notions of crimes against humanity and genocide may be comparatively recent, the concept of war crimesas a restraint on the military is of much older origin. Virtually every recorded civilization placed some limitations on the conduct of its own warfare, and violations of such rules could therefore be considered war crimes. In the Egyptian and Sumerian wars of the second millennium B.C.E., there were rules defining the circumstances under which war might be initiated. In ancient China it was forbidden in wartime to kill wounded enemies or to strike elderly armed opponents. The Chinese philosopher Sun Tzu wrote in The Art of War (400 B.C.E.): “Treat the captives well and care for them. All the soldiers taken must be cared for with magnanimity and sincerity so that they may be used by us” (Friedman, p. 3). Similar restrictions on killing the wounded, ordinary citizens, women, children, or prisoners were expressed in Hindu literature of the fourth century B.C.E., in Babylonian texts, and in the Bible (Deut. 20).
The Greeks and Romans introduced further notions of humane and civilized treatment of noncombatants in war. Plato wrote in his Republic that war among the Hellenes should have as its end “friendly correction,” and not destruction of the enemy. The Romans developed the concept of the “just war” that alone warranted resort to force. Truces, safe-conduct passes, and armistices were respected, and cease-fires were agreed upon so that the dead might be buried. Poisoned weapons were prohibited. This is not to say that the Greeks or Romans did not engage in barbarous acts in time of war. But the development of rules of restraint, although frequently violated, established the principle that limits had to be placed on acts of war—a notion that Christianity was to carry forward over the coming centuries.
In the early Christian era, observance of the Christian principles of pacifism and nonresistance eventually gave way to ferocious efforts to defend Christendom and expand its boundaries. St. Augustine (354-430) and St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) developed the just-war doctrine, arguing that wars by a Christian sovereign to spread and protect the true faith against attack by outside enemies were justified. The early church fathers had insisted that soldiers who killed even in a just war should do penance, and they warned against pillaging and slaughter. Later, ecumenical councils of the church passed various decrees establishing a “Truce of God,” when all fighting was to cease, and tried to arrange cease-fires between Christian princes during the Crusades.
Beginning in the fifteenth century, two other developments contributed to the establishment of rules of war on an international basis: (1) the chivalric code of honor took shape, limiting the weapons and methods that could be used in combat; and (2) merchants insisted that unlimited pillaging and destruction in wartime ought to be restrained. The chivalric code applied across national borders and was founded on natural law, limiting even princes in their capacity as knights and soldiers (Keen, p. 50).
Scholastic teachers, jurists, and theologians reexamined and systematized the laws of war as derived from classical Greek and Roman practice, Christian doctrine, contemporary practice, and chivalric codes. Francisco de Vittoria (1485-1546), a Spanish professor who lectured on Thomist philosophy in Paris and Salamanca, examined the moral and legal problems of the Spanish conquests against the Native Americans in the New World in his work on the law of war. He concluded that “it is never right to slay the guiltless, even as an indirect and unintended result, except where there is no other means of carrying on the operations of a just war” (p. 179). Other important sixteenth- and seventeenth-century writers on the laws of war were Balthazar Ayola, judge advocate of the Spanish armies in the Netherlands; Francisco Suarez; and Alberico Gentili.
The most systematic and comprehensive work on the laws of war was that of the Netherlander Hugo Grotius (1583-1645), who served in many important positions in the Dutch government, including a term as attorney general. In 1625 he published a three-volume work titled The Law of War and Peace , which brought together classical and medieval thought on the restraints on war and sought to reconcile Christian dogma and the actual practice of contemporary states in wartime. Grotius attempted to discover what the rules of international law were, using the acts of generals and soldiers as the basis for his search. Writing at the beginning of one of the most ferocious and bitter wars of European history, the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), Grotius proceeded on the assumption that the experiences and actions of armies in war were not improper deviations from a theological norm. Rather, they were the expressions of a natural order, whose principles he could determine.
Grotius sought to explain what that natural law was. If war does have rules that all states obey (or should obey), then deviation from those rules should become a crime—a war crime, as the twentieth century would call it. Some seventeenth-century Christian princes took Grotius’s rules seriously. Gustavus II Adolphus of Sweden carried a copy of Grotius’s book with him everywhere, established strict rules against attacking hospitals, churches, schools, or the civilians connected with them, and severely punished those of his own soldiers who disobeyed the rules (Wedgwood, pp. 261, 265). Other generals either did not or could not control their men, and mass destructions and pillage took place frequently. In the rare cases when soldiers were punished for such deeds, it was not because they had committed a war crime—which had no meaning at the time—but because they had committed murder or rape under circumstances that the commander could not overlook.
The rise of the nation-state in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and the decline of the church’s moral authority led to more concrete efforts to define and codify the laws of war whose violation would constitute a war crime.
The Lieber Code and the Development of International Treaties
In the nineteenth century, the effort to systematize the laws of war and restrain excesses by the military against civilians and prisoners received a major impetus from an American law professor, Francis Lieber (1800-1872), a German-born veteran of the Napoleonic Wars. In the middle of the American Civil War, Lieber suggested that a code of the law and usages of war be prepared that would be used as a guide by military commanders in their treatment of prisoners of war, irregular guerrilla forces, and captured enemy property. In April 1863, Lieber’s code was issued by the Union government under the title “Instructions for the Government of Armies of the United States in the Field.” Many European nations, including Prussia, quickly adopted instructions based on the code.
The European nations had meanwhile begun the process of codifying the laws of war by international treaties binding on signatories in all future conflicts. The first step had been the Declaration of Paris (1856), signed by seven European nations, dealing with the seizure of neutral ships carrying enemy goods. The Red Cross Convention (1864), which specifically covered the treatment of the wounded in armies in the field, was signed by twelve European nations. (The United States acceded to it in 1882.) In 1868, eighteen nations signed and ratified another agreement, the Declaration of St. Petersburg, concerned with “projectiles . . . charged with fulminating or inflammable substances.”
A more comprehensive treaty, dealing with all aspects of the conduct of war and based largely on the Lieber Code, was prepared by delegates of fifteen nations who met in Brussels in 1874. However, some European powers that had begun to develop new weapons and that faced the prospect of new wars became cool to the idea, and the Brussels Declaration was never officially adopted. Twenty-five years later (1899), on the initiative of Russia, a new conference was called at The Hague that led to the first of a series of international conventions broadly treating the conduct of war. The conference adopted a series of treaties dealing with treatment of prisoners of war and military authority over hostile territory, and prohibiting (for a period of five years) the use of poison gas, expanding bullets (“dumdums”), and bombs dropped from balloons.
In 1907, another conference was held at The Hague, from which emerged fourteen separate treaties, eight of them concerned with maritime matters. Agreement was also reached on a convention dealing with the wounded and prisoners of war, and containing detailed regulations for conduct toward civilians in land warfare. The earlier ban against bombing from balloons was extended.
A new conference at The Hague was planned for 1915. By that time World War I had broken out, and the Hague conventions were being given their first practical application. After the war ended, an Allied commission was appointed to determine whether any enemy soldiers should be tried for violating the laws and customs of war. The commission recommended that an international court be established, composed of representatives of the major powers (a plan later followed in the creation of the Nuremberg Tribunal after World War II), which would apply the principles of the Hague conventions. But the peace commissioners decided to have existing military tribunals from the victorious armies act as the trial courts. The German government strenuously objected, insisting that its own courts should conduct the trials. The Allies agreed to let the Reich Supreme Court at Leipzig handle the charges. A group of German soldiers who had mistreated Allied prisoners were found guilty by the Leipzig court, but were given minor sentences. Two U-boat officers were also tried, for taking part in the torpedoing of a troop ship and the shelling of the survivors (the Llandovery Castlecase). But five defendants accused of the atrocities against Belgian civilians that had so outraged the world were acquitted.
After World War I, the European nations also returned to the process of codifying the laws of war. In 1925 they prepared a treaty prohibiting the use of bacteriological methods of warfare. In 1929 two detailed conventions were prepared at Geneva dealing with conduct toward the sick and wounded as well as prisoners of war. Both conventions were to be in force during World War II.
The modern industrial powers continued the effort to define war crimes by treaty in Geneva in 1949, after World War II and the Nuremberg trials. Once again, detailed conventions were laid down, in the following four separate agreements.
- Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded and Sick in Armed Forces in the Field.
- Convention for the Amelioration of the Condition of Wounded, Sick, and Shipwrecked Members of Armed Forces at Sea.
- Convention Relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War.
- Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War.
After World War II, the United Nations had taken over the major effort to codify the rules of war. It passed the Genocide Convention in 1948; a resolution against nuclear weapons in 1961; and a resolution on human rights, calling for protection of civilian populations in time of war, in 1968. In the early 1970s the United Nations also urged the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) to develop new agreements on rules of war that would take account of colonial and guerrilla wars, as well as new methods of warfare not covered by earlier conventions. The ICRC brought together a group of experts, who in 1977 produced two protocols to the 1949 Geneva Conventions, dealing with colonial wars of liberation, prisoner-of-war status, and protection of civilian populations (Protocols Additional to the Geneva Convention of August 12, 1949 and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International and Non-international Armed Conflicts, June 10, 1977, 1125 U.N.T.S 609). The United States did not ratify the 1977 protocols.
Another conference was held in Geneva in 1980, to consider restrictions on the use of certain conventional weapons. Three additional protocols were prepared in 1981, covering weapons that introduce nondetectable fragments into the human body; mines, booby traps and other devices; and incendiary weapons (United Nations Conference on Prohibitions or Restrictions on Use of Certain Conventional Weapons: Final Act, U.N. Doc., A/CONF. 95/15 of October 27, 1980 reprinted in 19 I.L.M. 1523, 1530).
In December 1997, 122 countries signed the Landmine Treaty (the Oslo Treaty), which grew out of the 1980 Geneva Conference, banning the use, sale, and production of antipersonnel mines, which ravaged many parts of Asia and Africa (Convention on the Prohibition of the Use, Stockpiling, Production and Transfer of Anti-personnel Mines and on their Destruction, 36 I.L.M. 1507). The treaty came into force on 1 March 1999, although the United States refused to sign because of objections made by the Department of Defense, which was concerned that it would inhibit its ability to respond to rogue nations who refused to obey or follow the restrictions contained in the treaty.
Efforts to declare the use of nuclear weapons a violation of international law and therefore a war crime have continued for many years. Proponents of such a declaration argue that nuclear weapons by their nature inflict excessive and unnecessary suffering on civilian populations, in violation of the 1907 Hague Convention and the 1949 Geneva conventions (Falk, Meyrowitz, and Sanderson). In fact, in December 1963 a Japanese court did reach such a decision in the famed Shimoda case, in which victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki sued the Japanese government for damages caused by the dropping of the atomic bombs on those cities. (The Japanese government had waived any claims by its citizens against the United States in the peace treaty of 1951, and thus was sued as a surrogate for the actual perpetrators.)
The Hague and Geneva conventions are a reflection, but not necessarily the source, of the laws of war. International law has evolved out of the customs and practices prevailing among civilized nations, and the rules of war as laid down in the conventions are but one expression of this common heritage. The conventions declare that all nations are bound by basic rules of warfare, whether or not they are signatories to the treaties and whether or not they attempt to withdraw their ratification. Article 63 of the first Geneva Convention of 1949 (relating to wounded and sick in the field) allowed any party to denounce the treaty, but the “denunciation shall have effect only in respect of the denouncing Power. It shall in no way impair the obligations which the Parties to the conflict shall remain bound to fulfill by virtue of the principles of the law of nations, as they result from the usages established among civilized peoples, from the laws of humanity and the dictates of the public conscience.” The appeals decision in Tadic also recognized that all nations are bound by “Customary Rules of International Human Rights,” regardless of the technical application of a particular treaty or protocol and regardless of whether a nation adhered to their legal provisions.
Those common principles have not varied in their basic outlines for thousands of years: defenseless civilians should not be attacked, prisoners should not be killed, the wounded should be cared for, and weapons of unnecessary destructiveness should not be used.
War Crimes Trials
As noted above, trials of soldiers who raped civilians, tortured prisoners, or killed the wounded have been rare events until modern times. Victorious armies seldom punished their own men. In the days when payment to soldiers was haphazard, commanders found that permitting excesses and the pillaging of the enemy served as a useful escape valve, and clear rules on what was prohibited in war were not definitively laid down.
With the rise of permanent, professional armies, the necessity for imposing discipline upon soldiers was perceived, and the first international treaties on the rules of war were signed. Punishment for violations of these rules began to be imposed. One of the earliest complete records of a war crimes trial as such involved Major Henry Wirz, the Swiss doctor who was in charge of the Confederate army’s infamous Andersonville prison camp during the Civil War. A Union court-martial headed by Major General Lew Wallace (the author of Ben-Hur) tried and convicted Wirz of murder and mistreatment of prisoners “in violation of the laws and customs of war,” which had just been defined in the Lieber Code, discussed above. Wirz raised the defense of superior orders, but the court rejected the claim, and he was hanged for his crimes.
The British army tried some of its soldiers for killing prisoners and civilians during the Boer War (commemorated in the 1980 Australian film Breaker Morant), and the American army held trials in the Philippines to punish atrocities committed by its soldiers during the insurrection of 1899-1902. A limited effort was made to try war criminals after World War 1. But it was left to German courts to try their own soldiers, and the defendants were treated quite leniently or were acquitted, as described above.
The most important group of war crimes trials took place after World War II. The Allied powers issued the “Moscow Declaration” in October 1943, announcing that those accused of war crimes would be “brought back to the scene of their crimes and judged on the spot by the peoples whom they have outraged.” The declaration also specified that the Allies would take action against the “major criminals whose offenses have no particular geographical localization.”
The United Nations War Crimes Commission was established in 1943 to gather evidence of war crimes for later use. It was chiefly concerned with the committing by lower-level officials or soldiers of such crimes as mistreatment of prisoners of war, atrocities against civilians, or execution of hostages.
The Allied powers engaged in considerable debate about what to do about the higherechelon leaders. As late as April 1945 the British cabinet voted to shoot the chief Nazi leaders on sight, even if they surrendered, rather than hold elaborate trials. But the Americans and Soviets insisted on an international military tribunal, and the British eventually acceded. The procedures for trying the cases were worked out in London in July and August 1945. An international military tribunal made up of representatives of the four major powers (the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France) would try the major political and military leaders of the German government. The charges determined by the London Conference included (1) crimes against peace; (2) war crimes; and (3) crimes against humanity, as defined above.
Twenty-two leading members of the German government were tried at Nuremberg between November 1945 and August 1946. Nineteen were found guilty, and twelve were sentenced to death by hanging, including Hermann Göring, Joachim von Ribbentrop, Hans Frank, Wilhelm Frick, Alfred Jodl, and Martin Bormann, the last tried in absentia.
The specific war crimes of which the Nazi leaders were found guilty included the killing of captured Allied soldiers and prisoners of war, the massacre of hostages in occupied territories, the murder and ill treatment of civilian populations, the deportation of civilians for use as slave labor, and, of course, the systematic killing of the Jewish population of occupied Europe. The tribunal found the defendants guilty of these war crimes not only on the basis of violations of the Hague and Geneva conventions, but also because they violated the customary rules of war between nations. The terms of the Hague and Geneva conventions applied only if all belligerents were parties to them, whereas they had not been explicitly ratified by the Soviet Union and some other countries involved in the war.
The rules of land warfare expressed in the (Hague) convention undoubtedly represented an advance over existing international law at the time of their adoption. But the convention expressly stated that it was an attempt “to revise the general laws and customs of war” which it thus recognized to be then existing; but by 1939 these rules laid down in the convention were recognized by all civilized nations and were regarded as being declaratory of the laws and customs of war. (Trial of the Major War Criminals, vol. 1, pp. 253-254)
The formation of the International Military Tribunal was an important step in the punishment of war crimes. First, it showed that the Hague and Geneva conventions were an embodiment of international law that could be enforced on an international level. Prior war crimes trials had been held by individual nations applying their own law to their own soldiers or those of the enemy.
Second, persons were put on trial for violating international law even though their own domestic law permitted those acts. As explained by Telford Taylor, chief counsel for the prosecution at Nuremberg, “individuals may be held criminally liable under international law, even though their conduct was valid under, or even required by, domestic law” (Taylor, p. 82).
Third, the Nuremberg trials expanded individual liability for war crimes far beyond the acts of individual soldiers committing atrocities. Contrary to popular belief, the Nuremberg tribunal was not the first court to declare that superior orders was not a defense to a war crime: that defense had been rejected in the trial of Major Wirz and in the Llandovery Castle case decided by the Leipzig court in 1921. Indeed, the domestic law of Great Britain, the United States, and Prussia had long since held that a person does not escape liability for a crime by insisting that he was following orders. What the Nuremberg tribunal did do was to apply the converse of the superior-orders rule: namely, that the persons giving the orders, up to and including the political leaders of the nations, could also be guilty of war crimes. Thus, among those found guilty were German generals who had ordered the killing of prisoners of war, the civil administrators of occupied territories, and the economic ministers who had exploited slave labor. In addition to the trial of the major criminals, the Allies decided that lower-level German officials should be tried by national or occupation courts of each occupying power.
After the major trials in Nuremberg, American military tribunals held 809 trials in both Germany and Japan, involving 1,600 defendants; the British held 524 trials involving 937; and the French tried 2,107 individuals (Trials of War Criminals; United Nations, War Crimes Commission). It is estimated that ten thousand persons were tried for war crimes in Europe and the Far East between 1945 and 1950.
In Europe, the individuals tried included soldiers who killed prisoners, civilians, and hostages, officers who did not properly restrain their subordinates, doctors who conducted illegal medical experiments on prisoners, judges who enforced racial laws against Jews and other nationalities, industrialists who exploited slave labor, and even the manufacturers of the Zyklon B gas that was used to kill Jews and Allied nationals in concentration camps.
Similar trials took place in the Far East. An international military tribunal for the Far East tried the leading Japanese political leaders and generals on the same charges as those heard in Nuremberg. A number of the defendants—particularly some of the generals—were found guilty of committing atrocities against civilians in China, Borneo, and the Philippines, of mistreating and starving prisoners of war, or of disregarding their duty to protect civilians and prisoners under their jurisdiction.
Other trials were held by military commissions in occupied territories. The most famous was the trial of General Tomoyuki Yamashita, the Japanese commander of the Philippines in 1944 and 1945. Yamashita was found guilty of “unlawfully disregard[ing] and fail[ing] to discharge his duty as commander in chief to control the operations of the members of his command, permitting them to commit brutal atrocities” (In re Yamashita, 327 U.S. 1, 13-14 (1946)). It appeared that Yamashita had poor communication with his troops and little opportunity to control them after the American invasion of Luzon. Nevertheless, he was found guilty of war crimes based on the atrocities committed by his troops. His lawyers appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which refused to intervene, over famous dissents by Justices Frank Murphy and Wiley Rutledge.
One of the most significant war crimes trial after the 1940s was that of Adolf Eichmann, kidnapped from Argentina by Israeli agents and tried in Jerusalem in 1961. There was no question that Eichmann was personally involved in—and therefore responsible for—the killing of millions of Jews from occupied countries. The only legal issue of any significance was whether Israel had jurisdiction to try him. Since he was charged with crimes against the Jewish people, the Israeli court had no difficulty in finding that it could act. “The connection between the State of Israel and the Jewish people needs no explanation” (Friedman, p. 1633).
The issue of war crimes became more significant for Americans during the Vietnam War. The best-known episode occurred when an American military company invaded the small hamlet of Son My (My Lai) in South Vietnam in March 1968 and killed virtually every inhabitant, including women, children, and old men, a total of about four hundred persons. The victims were defenseless, made no effort to fight the Americans, and were not hostile. According to testimony at the court-martial of Lieutenant William Calley, Jr., held in March 1971, Calley had ordered his men to kill everyone and had personally killed a number of the inhabitants, including a two-year-old child. He was found guilty of the premeditated murder of twenty-two Vietnamese civilians and sentenced to life imprisonment. The sentence was reduced to twenty years’ imprisonment by the commanding general of Fort Benning, and was further reduced to ten years by the secretary of the army. Calley was paroled after serving one-third of the sentence (Calley v. Callaway, 519 F. 2d 184 (5th Cir. 1975)).
Three other persons were tried for their involvement in the Son My episode, but all were acquitted of the charges: Captain Ernest Medina, the company commander who denied having given Calley orders to kill, and two sergeants, Charles Hutto and David Mitchell. Thus, only Calley was found guilty of any charges. One other American soldier, marine private Michael Schwartz, was found guilty of killing twelve Vietnamese villagers in a separate incident at Danang.
There was considerable debate about the legality under international law of American bombing of North Vietnamese cities, but most experts believed that it was no different or worse than Allied bombings during World War II. American treatment of Vietcong prisoners raised more serious problems, and one American lieutenant, James Duffy, admitted during his court-martial that he had ordered a prisoner to be killed. He was acquitted after other officers testified that they too had been ordered to take no prisoners in combat.
In the 1990s, war crimes trials were held in both Yugoslavia and Rwanda, following widespread atrocities against civilian populations in both counties. The U.N. Security Counsel established special tribunals with defined jurisdiction to try those responsible for mass killings and other offenses, including deportation and rape. The tribunals were known as the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) (U.N. Doc. S/PV. 3217 (1993)) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) (U.N. Doc. S/RES/955 (1994)). Over one hundred individuals were indicted by the ICTY, including the former president of Serbia, Slobodan Milosevic, for his actions in ordering the persecution of Albanian civilians in Kosovo, including the murder and forced removal of many Kosovo Albanian citizens. The trials produced important new rulings on international crimes, including the decision that rape is a crime against humanity (Prosecutor v. Kunaric) and that a crime against humanity can be committed in purely internal conflicts by local militias who are acting for the goals of a foreign power, even if not under their direction (Prosecutor v. Tadic).
By the end of 2000, the ICTR had indicted close to fifty individuals for genocide and crimes against humanity following the massacre of hundreds of thousands of Tutsis by the Hutudominated government in 1994. Half of the Rwanda cabinet in power at the time, including the former Prime Minister, Jean Kambanda, were indicted for genocide. (A much smaller number of Hutu noncombatants were killed by avenging Tutsis, and Louise Arbour, the former chief prosecutor of the ICTR urged that evenhanded justice required their indictment as well.)
Defining and punishing war crimes has remained an anomalous undertaking. Nations encourage soldiers to kill in war, but try to limit their methods and targets. We allow depersonalized mass bombings of cities, which can kill thousands of defenseless civilians, but we punish individual acts of soldiers who actually confront their victims, and we stockpile weapons far worse than the poisoned arrows prohibited in Roman times. With the increase of ferocious wars of liberation, having no distinct battle lines, and with the growing number of guerrilla armies who fight without uniforms or insignia, the formal rules of the Hague and Geneva conventions may seem outdated. But the need for effective and principled control over atrocities and excesses in armed conflicts of any kind continues.