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Who Is a War Criminal?


Recently, President Joe Biden flatly called Russia’s Vladimir Putin a “war criminal” for the unfolding onslaught in Ukraine, where hospitals and maternity wards have been bombed. But declaring someone a war criminal is not as simple as just saying the words.


GS II- International Relations

Dimensions of the Article:
  1. Who is a war criminal?
  2. What specific crimes make someone a war criminal?
  3. Investigation and Determination of war crimes
  4. Have national leaders been prosecuted in the past?

Who is a war criminal?

The term applies to anyone who violates a set of rules adopted by world leaders known as the law of armed conflict.

Law of armed conflict:

  • These rules govern how countries behave in times of war.
  • These rules have been modified and expanded over the past century, drawn from the Geneva Conventions in the aftermath of World War II and protocols added later.
  • The rules are aimed at protecting people not taking part in fighting and those who can no longer fight, including civilians like doctors and nurses, wounded troops and prisoners of war.
  • Treaties and protocols lay out who can be targeted and with what weapons. Certain weapons are prohibited, including chemical or biological agents.

What specific crimes make someone a war criminal?

  • The so-called “grave breaches” of the conventions that amount to war crimes include willful killing and extensive destruction and appropriation of property not justified by military necessity.
  • Other war crimes include deliberately targeting civilians, using disproportionate force, using human shields and taking hostages.
  • The International Criminal Court also prosecutes crimes against humanity committed in the context of “a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population.” These include murder, extermination, forcible transfer, torture, rape and sexual slavery.
  • The most likely way that Putin could come into the picture as a war criminal is through the widely recognized legal doctrine of command responsibility.
    • If commanders order or even know or are in a position to know about crimes and did nothing to prevent them, they can be held legally responsible.

Investigation and Determination of war crimes

  • There are four paths to investigate and determine war crimes, though each one has limits.
  • One is through the International Criminal Court.
  • A second option would be if the United Nations turns its work on the inquiry commission over to a hybrid international war crimes tribunal to prosecute Putin.
  • A third would be to create a tribunal or court to try Putin by a group of interested or concerned states, such as NATO, the European Union and the U.S.
    • The military tribunals at Nuremberg following World War II against Nazi leaders are an example.
  • Finally, some countries have their own laws for prosecuting war crimes.
    • Germany, for example, is already investigating Putin.
    • The U.S. doesn’t have such a law, but the Justice Department has a special section that focuses on acts including international genocide, torture, recruitment of child soldiers and female genital mutilation.

Have national leaders been prosecuted in the past?

  • Yes. Senior leaders have been prosecuted for their acts in countries such as Bosnia, Cambodia, and Rwanda, from post-World War II courts in Nuremberg and Tokyo to more contemporary ad hoc tribunals.
  • A United Nations tribunal in The Hague has put former Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic on trial for fomenting deadly wars as Yugoslavia fell apart in the early 1990s. Before the court could reach a decision, he died in his cell.
  • Radovan Karadzic, a Bosnian Serb ally, and Gen. Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military leader, were both successfully prosecuted and are now serving life terms.

-Source: Indian Express

May 2024