The term "war crime" is not precisely defined. Under international law, two international agreements (including numerous supplementary agreements and amendments) are fundamental:

  1. The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. It contains provisions on, for example, prohibited strategies of warfare, protection of civilian and humanitarian buildings, protection of Aid agency, etc.
  2. The Geneva Conventions of 1949. It deals with war prisoners, soldiers who were wounded in the war, and the protection of civilians.

War crimes are selected and serious violations of the rules of international law applicable in international or non-international armed conflicts, whose criminality results directly from international law. In general, serious and systematic violations of provisions of international humanitarian law are concerned. In most cases a distinction is made between “war crimes”, “genocide” and “crimes against humanity”.

War Crimes

War crimes are serious and systematic violations of the agreements that politically or militarily responsible persons may order or allow in armed conflicts or wars.

  • Deliberate attacks on the civilian population or on civilian targets (residential buildings, schools, hospitals, ...)
  • Injury or killing of unarmed fighters / surrendered combatant
  • Looting in conquered areas
  • Taking hostages
  • Use of poison weapons (e.g. nuclear, chemical or biological weapons)
  • Rape, sexual coercion & slavery
  • Torture or inhumane treatment
  • The use of civilians as shields to prevent attacks on military targets (e.g., armaments camps or rocket launching ramps in schools or hospitals)
  • Attacks on aid organizations
  • Recruitment of child soldiers
  • Deportation of inhabitants of occupied territory
  • etc.

Crimes against humanity

Crimes against humanity are serious and systematic crimes, which are ordered or permitted by political or military authorities. They overlap with war crimes. But crimes against humanity, in contrast to them, can also be committed in non-warfare.
The first prosecution for crimes against humanity took place at the Nuremberg trials.

  • Enslavement or trafficking of human beings
  • Systematic sexual violence (rapes, forced marriages, sexual enslavement)
  • Systematic deprivation and expulsion of people
  • Enforced disappearance of persons
  • Torture
  • etc.


The systematic murder of people belonging to a particular cultural group (usually a minority) is referred to as "genocide" (hybrid word; from greek: genos = origin, race, people and lat. cide = act of killing). The word was coined 1944 in a book.
The aim is to destroy a particular group and its culture. Since the "Genocide Convention" (UNO 1948), genocide is considered a serious crime that does not lapse.

The Convention defines genocide as:
... any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such

  • Killing members of the group
  • Causing serious bodily harm, or harm to mental health, to members of the group
  • Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part
  • Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group
  • Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group
  • etc.

International Criminal Court

The International Criminal Court (ICC or ICCt) is an intergovernmental organization (founded 1 July 2002) and international tribunal that sits in The Hague in the Netherlands. Only nationals of Contracting States are subject to its jurisdiction.
Political heavyweights such as China, India, the USA, Russia, Turkey and Israel have either not signed the Rome Statute, have not ratified the treaty after signing, or have withdrawn their signature.

Laws not Men

The “Rule of law” refers to a concept that emphasizes governance on the basis of laws as a matter of principle. It gives absolute priority to the law over other standards or justifications for sovereign actions. It developed mainly based on of the Anglo-Saxon Common Law. Today, the concept of the rule of law represents a cornerstone of Western, democratic systems, and the term is found in Western constitutions. A well-known representative of the idea was, among others, Aristotle – the famous Greek philosopher.

In 1780, John Adams enshrined this principle in the Massachusetts Constitution by seeking to establish "a government of laws and not of men."
In the government of this commonwealth, the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them: the executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them: the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them: to the end it may be a government of laws and not of men. [Artikel XXX, Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts; 1780; drafted by John Adams]

Law & Equality

The common sense of mankind demands that law shall not stop with the punishment of petty crimes by little people. It must also reach men who possess themselves of great power and make deliberate and concerted use of it to set in motion evils which leave no home in the world untouched. The Charter of this Tribunal evidences a faith that the law is not only to govern the conduct of little men, but that even rulers are, as Lord Chief Justice Coke put it to King James, 'under ... the law.' And let me make clear that while this law is first applied against German aggressors, the law includes, and if it is to serve a useful purpose it must condemn aggression by any other nations, including those which sit here now in judgment. [Opening Statement of The Chief Prosecutor, Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson; 1945; Nuremberg Trials]