International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

What constitutes a war crime?

Following on our discussion about defining war crimes, here’s an interesting blog post on Opinio Juris in response to an op-ed in the NYT/IHT on whether the Israeli settlements constitute war crimes. This particular conflict prompts many accusations of war crimes being committed by both sides and reveals that defining war crimes still prompts much debate and confusion.

CBC has a useful article on defining war crimes in the Middle East conflict and addresses issues of jurisdiction, civilian casualties, proportionality, and hostages. BBC also does a good run down by posing this simple but loaded question of “what is a war crime?”

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4 responses to “What constitutes a war crime?

  1. marinagans January 27, 2011 at 12:35 am

    BBC defines war crimes as crimes against humanity, mistreatment of pow’s and civilians during war time, and Genocide being the most severe accusation. The Geneva convention also has important statements on what a war crime is, they define it as willful and purposeful killing and torture, inflicting serious injury to health or body, unlawful confinement of a person, lack of a fair trial, ect. What i found interesting that we discussed in class was how the losers of a war are prosecuted for there crimes but the winners of that same war who were also committing these terrible acts of violence were never persecuted for the crimes they committed. They too participated in torture, deliberate targeting of civilians, destruction of property, rape ect. And yet there victims do not receive justice because those committing the crimes won the war, there misbehavior goes unpunished and serves as a constant reminder of how justice is blind and can be seen in every direction of war. The good guys become the bad. So while one group receives justice what should we do about the other victims?

  2. ehsaunde January 27, 2011 at 3:45 pm

    I think crimes of humanity and war crimes are hard to define due to the militaristic nature of some governments. For example, Saddam Hussein thought what he was doing was right; for the good of the country. Chinese government holds strong to Communistic ideals because the officials believe that they know better than the population. How can we really punish the bad guys when they do not even understand what about their actions was wrong? It is more an issue of the whole way of life that is promoted in these societies. Government is seen as the parents and like my mother tells me sometimes, “I brought you into this world and I can take you out just as easy”. Of corse she’s kidding but the dictators that kill their citizens in an honest effort to do what they see as right must feel the same way. What they see as development, we see as a war crime and/or a crime against humanity. The whole attitude of a country is hard to change, so how exactly can we effectively ‘punish’ those that buy into it?

  3. chrisumass January 27, 2011 at 7:23 pm

    We discussed in class that the biggest indicator of a war crime is that it is grand in scope, widespread and affecting many people. The BBC article stated that murder, enslavement, and torture were all crimes. However these cases would not be brought up to the international courts if it didn’t have a severe impact on the nations people. The initial example the article gives is the holocaust, which was genocide and wide spread, dealing with millions of people. This demonstrates that a war crime is taken into account if a large portion of the population or a group of the population are being targeted by the government, military, etc. Another factor is based entirely on what the dominant powers decide what a war crime is and whether they will tolerate a nations actions or not. The US is not on trial for the Dresden bombing, just like China isn’t being tired for their human rights violations. How much power a nation has dictates how much they can get away with, therefore smaller unstable countries usually are the ones who are charged with war crimes.

    • Alana Tiemessen January 28, 2011 at 5:46 pm

      as a quick correction, it is crimes against humanity that are systemic and widespread crimes against civilians on a mass scale… a war crime can be a violation of the laws of war against a single person or a group of persons (civilian or military, but in the context war). but many of the types of crimes overlap, e.g. sexual violence, torture, etc.

      but the argument above holds – that the power differentials between states matters, and who the victor is definitely matters. this will become glaringly obvious when we get into the cases of the ICTY and ICTR and Peskin’s argument about victor’s justice and about the selectivity inherent in the ICC’s prosecutions strategy.

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