What it is: A crime for which an individual can be held responsible, and which breaks the laws of war. Since the Second World War violations of international humanitarian law have been regarded as war crimes. People accused of war crimes may be tried at International Criminal Tribunals (like those set up to try people who carried out ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and genocide in Rwanda) or at the International Criminal Court (which did not start work until 2003, and is still boycotted by the USA because of fears that some US soldiers might be charged with war crimes).

What it means: The concept of 'a crime of war' has been around as long as there have been professional armies to fight wars. Such crimes were understood to break an accepted code of behaviour, crossing the line between conventional military action and atrocities. After the Holocaust during the Second World War, a number of Nazi leaders were tried at an International (France, UK, USA, USSR) Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany. The tribunal applied the Nuremberg Principles, which, like the Geneva Conventions, were aimed at protecting the human rights of war-wounded, refugees and civilians. The Nuremberg tribunal's definition of 'crimes against humanity' became one of the bases for today's international law defining war crimes. War crimes, however, differ from crimes against humanity: they only apply in international armed conflict. The problem has been that the peace-promoting charter of the United Nations was drawn up just after a world war: it was meant to prevent interstate conflict of that kind from happening again. During the rest of the 20th century the wars were rather different: they included the Cold War stand-off, wars of liberation, civil wars, and all kinds of local armed conflict and rebellion. Interstate conflict was relatively rare. And because of the existing definitions of war crimes, there had been no way for the UN to bring to justice the people who, for example, carried out killings of millions of Russian citizens during the dictatorship of Stalin, or the murder of Cambodians during the Khmer Rouge's rule. So international law needed redefining to take new conflict situations into account. In the 1990s this problem was tackled by allowing international war crimes tribunals to have their own agreed Statutes, listing the atrocities which were to be regarded as war crimes in that particular conflict. Another problem is that it is often very difficult to bring war criminals to justice at all. Some Nazis, for example, only reached the dock in old age, and some chief promoters of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia had still not been arrested 10 years later. In Rwanda, on the other hand, thousands were arrested, but the Tribunals found that each case took a very long time to prepare, and faced having to release those who had been in prison for a long time without yet being tried. In almost every case that has reached any of the international courts, the proceedings have been long-drawn-out - and expensive. So, though every member country of the United Nations is required to search for and arrest people charged with war crimes, relatively few have been caught and prosecuted. The number of those who haven't even been named, of course, is much greater.

Think about it:
In 1945 'war criminal' was a special category, mainly associated with the perpetrators of the Holocaust, although it was also used in relation to Japanese leaders. But by the 21st century it was in widespread use. In 2003 Bosnia was still a dangerous and violent place, a decade after the conflict had officially ended, and now local police were being encouraged to add war crimes to their list of chargeable offences. Many war criminals turn to other kinds of crime, such as human trafficking, drugs and prostitution. But the local police are reluctant to act: the ethnic divisions in Bosnia are still painfully strong, and the police don't want to arrest suspects from their own ethnic group. What do you think? - should 'war crime' be a crime like any other, or in a special category (perhaps with its own special penalties)?

(2) Or should it be a special term at all? It's hard to handle the idea of 'war crime', when war by its nature involves constant abuse of human rights and creates a lawless state of affairs in which any and all kinds of atrocity can and do happen. In war, there are always crimes of all sorts: easy to commit, hard to discover, and next to impossible to prosecute - especially if witnesses are unwilling to come forward, or are dead. On the other hand, it's agreed that criminals should be brought to justice. Work out ways of rethinking the whole idea of 'war crime'. Do you think war could come to be regarded as a crime itself? If so, what laws could be devised - and applied - to prevent it? (To think about this, find time if you can to look up some of the international laws that exist now and think about why they haven't been effective enough.)

(3) Think about this story from a reporter who visited Rwanda regularly after the genocide. 'Prisoners have been sentenced to death and publicly executed regularly in the hope of preventing history from repeating itself. I visited a detention camp for children: they had been shut away so they wouldn't be lynched by the relatives of those they'd murdered. I saw that some of them were proud of themselves and respected because they had killed more people than the others, but when I asked why, they said nothing. I also remember the woman who said that the Hutu militiamen who came to kill Tutsis in her village had allowed her to choose between saving her son or her daughter, and I remember how she nodded when the interpreter said that it was her son who was still alive. I asked her if she wanted the murderers found. She replied that she knew them: they were her neighbours. She said that she wanted them tried, but was prepared to forgive them because "without forgiveness we could never manage to live together again".'
Those are some of the things that war does to people. You could say it's criminal. Is law the answer? Is it the only answer? What does 'forgiveness' mean in cases like this?

see also Truth and Reconciliation