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War crimes are unwarranted acts of violence committed against unarmed civilians or captured enemy soldiers.
Due to the nature of state sovereignty and the lack of genuinely effective international authorities, they are almost always prosecuted by the victors against the defeated, while war crimes committed by winners usually go unpunished.
Rules on the playground
War crimes are outlined in the International humanitarian law (IHL) which comprises the Geneva and Hague conventions, as well as a collection of unattributed laws and personal liberties. There have been several attempts to establish concrete norms of conduct for belligerents (the so-called jus in bello).
Currently, these rules of warfare are codified in the Geneva Conventions, which have been ratified (but not always respected) by almost all member states of the UN. These norms have evolved over time and nowadays form an extensive catalog of binding rules regarding issues like the protection of noncombatants, care for the wounded and the treatment of prisoners of war.
The International Criminal Court in the Hague serves as a supranational organ for the prosecution of war crimes, but it does not have worldwide jurisdiction, since not all states have ratified the respective treaty. It has also come under criticism for focusing too heavily on crimes committed in Africa, though its investigations have now expanded to reflect its global role.
Examples of trial to determine penalties for people guilty of war crimes
The Nuremberg Trials and the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (Tokyo War Crimes Trials) represent the most prominent examples of comprehensive trials against state leaders responsible for war crimes. The Nuremberg Trials are better known in Europe and America while the Tokyo War Crimes Trials are better known in Asia.
Also worthy of note are the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, which were established by the UN Security Council after horrific crimes took place in those countries in the 90s. A little known court, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, exhibits an interesting blend of international criminal law and domestic criminal law.
There have been several other ad hoc courts dealing exclusively with war crimes and other international crimes, such as the Iraqi High Tribunal and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia.
Recent violations of the laws and customs of war
- Sri Lankan Civil War (1983-2009): Individual crimes by both the Sri Lankan military and the rebels.
- Conflict in Darfur (2003-2010): Due to the nature of the conflict, and the view that it is military against civilians at large, the entire conflict has been charged as both a war crime and as an attempted genocide.
- Conflict in Chad: 300,000 civilians have died in and around Chad, likely as direct targets.
- Iraq War (2003-2011):
- Syrian Civil War — use of poison gas, crimes against humanity committed by Daesh, the Syrian Arab Army (Assad loyalists) and — to a smaller extent — various other factions
- Death squads in various Latin American countries as well as Spainduring the 1970s and 1980s and sometimes into the 1990s.
- Definitions: War Crimes — United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect