Foreign Policy Watch: India-United States

What constitutes a War Crime?


From UPSC perspective, the following things are important :

Prelims level: Definition of War Crimes

Mains level: War crimes and genocides

The International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague announced that it would open an investigation into possible war crimes or crimes against humanity in Ukraine.

What are War Crime?

  • War crimes are defined as serious violations of humanitarian laws during a conflict.
  • There are specific international standards for war crimes, which are not to be confused with crimes against humanity.
  • The definition is established by the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
  • It is derived from the 1949 Geneva Conventions and is based on the idea that individuals can be held liable for the actions of a state or its military.
  • There is a long list of acts that can be considered war crimes.
  • The taking of hostages, willful killings, torture or inhuman treatment of prisoners of war, and forcing children to fight are some of the more obvious examples.

How to identify war crimes?

To decide whether an individual or a military has committed a war crime, international humanitarian law lays down three principles:

  1. Distinction: This principle says that you have to be constantly trying to distinguish between civilian and belligerent populations and objects.
  2. Proportionality: It prohibits armies from responding to an attack with excessive violence. If a soldier is killed, for example, you cannot bomb an entire city in retaliation.
  3. Precaution: It requires parties to a conflict to avoid or minimize the harm done to the civilian population. For example, attacking a barrack where there are people who have said they no longer participate in the conflict can be a war crime.

Do war crimes constitute to genocides?

  • The UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect separates war crimes from genocide and crimes against humanity.
  • War crimes are defined as occurring in a domestic conflict or a war between two states.
  • However, genocide and crimes against humanity can happen in peacetime or during the unilateral aggression of a military towards a group of unarmed people.

Discrepancy in defining war crimes

  • In practice, there is a lot of gray area within that list.
  • The laws of war do not always protect civilians from death. Not every civilian death is necessarily illegal.
  • Raids on a cities or villages, bombing residential buildings or schools, and even the killing of groups of civilians do not necessarily amount to war crimes — not if their military necessity is justified.
  • The same act can become a war crime if it results in unnecessary destruction, suffering and casualties that exceed the military gain from the attack.
  • Also civilian and military populations have become increasingly hard to distinguish


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