What are war crimes? What are the rules of war?

Updated: Mar 09, 2022, 09:37 PM(IST)

Even wars have rules! Here's a report on what should and shouldn't be done during wars: 

Ukraine under attack

On February 24, Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered a "military operation" in some parts of eastern Ukraine as he made the announcement in a televised speech when the world was urging all the involved parties to find diplomatic ways to defuse the situation and give peace a chance. 

While making the announcement, Putin issued a warning to other countries that if they try to interfere with the Russian action would lead to "consequences they have never seen." 

Russia started the invasion and the crisis escalated with each day passing. 

(Photograph:Reuters)

Did Russia commit war crimes?

When the death toll in Ukraine started to increased, voices were raised to probe Russia's actions on whether it has committed war crimes during its invasion of Ukraine. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had described Russia's missile strikes in civilian areas as war crimes. 

On March 7, a spokesperson for the White House National Security Council said that US officials have begun gathering information to help determine whether war crimes have been committed.  
 
The official said, "We are collecting evidence of possible war crimes, human rights abuses, and violations of international humanitarian law. We support accountability using every tool available, including criminal prosecutions where appropriate". 

(Photograph:Reuters)

Concept of war crimes

As per United Nations, the concept of war crimes developed particularly at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. During that time, the international humanitarian law, which is also known as the law of armed conflict, was codified. 

The Hague Conventions was adopted in 1899 and 1907 focus on the prohibition to warring parties to use certain means and methods of warfare. 

(Photograph:Reuters)

Geneva Conventions

Apart from Hague Conventions, several other related treaties have also been adopted. The Geneva Convention of 1864 and subsequent Geneva Conventions (four 1949 Geneva Conventions and the two 1977 Additional Protocols) focus on the protection of persons not or no longer taking part in hostilities. 

Hague Law and Geneva Law identify several of the violations of its norms, however, all violations are not war crimes. 

(Photograph:Reuters)

What are war crimes?

As per the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, when it comes to war crimes, the court has jurisdiction when the crime is committed as part of a plan or policy or as part of a large-scale commission of such crimes. 

For the purpose of this statute, 'war crimes' means grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949. Violation includes wilful killing, torture or inhuman treatment (including biological experiments), wilfully causing great suffering (or serious injury to body or health), extensive destruction and appropriation of property, compelling a prisoner of war or other protected person to serve in the forces, wilfully depriving a prisoner of war or other protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial, unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement, taking of hostages.

(Photograph:Reuters)

What are the elements of the crime?

As per the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, war crimes are separated from genocide and crimes against humanity. 

Genocide and crimes against humanity can happen in peacetime. It can happen during the unilateral aggression of a military toward a group of unarmed people. 

On the other hand, war crimes are defined as occurring in a domestic conflict or a war between two states. 

There is no white and black when it comes to identifying and defining war crimes, a lot of grey is also there because what constitutes a war crime may differ, depending on whether an armed conflict is international or non-international. 

UN states that war crimes contain two main elements - 1) a contextual element: "the conduct took place in the context of and was associated with an international/non-international armed conflict" and 2) a mental element: intent and knowledge both with regards to the individual act and the contextual element. 

(Photograph:Reuters)

What are the rules of war?

There are some principal points of international humanitarian law that makes up the rules of war, which aims to protect people no longer or not taking part in hostilities. 

1. The civilians can not be attacked as the impact of warfare on them should be limited.

2. The detainees must not be tortured or face inhumane treatment. 

3. Hospitals and aid workers should not be attacked. 

4. Civilians should be given safe passage to flee. 

5. Humanitarian organisations should be provided access. 

6. There should not be unnecessary or excessive loss and suffering. 

(Photograph:Reuters)

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