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The idea of 'war crimes' is that there are international laws of war, and that to deliberately break those laws is to commit a 'war crime' and thereby deserve punishment. The most commonly quoted kind of 'war crime' is the wholesale massacre by the Nazis of Jews, Gypsies and others during the Second World War, or 'ethnic cleansing' in former Yugoslavia. On the other hand there is often resentment about naming as a 'war crime' the mass bombing of German civilian populations by the British and Americans in WW2, or the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki; or the more recent bombing of civilian populations in Serbia and Iraq.

Many have argued that the prosecution of war criminals at the International Military Tribunal at the end of WW2 which dealt with leading Nazis at Nuremberg, was biassed in favour of the victors in war and punished some of the defeated, with no question being raised about the conduct of those who 'won' the war. Pursuing the point further, some argued that war is itself a crime - since war is organised and systematic large scale public killing, injuring and destroying, it is as much a crime against humanity as individual privately motivated killing, injuring and destroying.
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Limitations on the conduct of armed conflict date to the Chinese Sun Tzu (sixth century BCE), the ancient Greeks were among the first to regard such prohibitions as Law. The notion of war crimes appeared more fully in the Hindu code of Manu (circa 200 BCE), and eventually made its way into Roman and European Law. The first true trial for war crimes is generally considered to be that of Peter von Hagenbach, who was tried in 1474 in Austria and sentenced to death for wartime atrocities.