What Are War Crimes? - Definition, Types & Examples

Instructor: Joseph Jones

Joseph has an MA in Political Science.

In this lesson, war crimes are defined. The categories of war crimes are examined and examples of war crimes will be given. There is a quiz at the end of the lesson.

War Crimes Defined

Say you joined the military and were sent off to fight in the war. While there, you decide to take your uniform off, dress in civilian clothes, and go out to fight the enemy. What you have done can be categorized as a traditional war crime because according to treaties making up the Geneva Convention, it is illegal for combatants not to wear distinctive uniforms visible at a distance.

War crimes can be defined as unwarranted acts of violence or brutality, violations of treaties, or violating customs that govern military conflicts. War crimes are most often committed by military personnel but can also be committed by politicians and civilians.

War crimes can be divided into three categories:

  • Traditional war crimes - acts that violate customary war time practices
  • Crimes against peace - acts of hostile military action against a sovereign country that is not in self defense
  • Crimes against humanity - acts that involve the enslavement, persecution, brutality or murder of non-combatants or the extermination of certain groups of people

War Crime Examples

In 1942, four German soldiers were smuggled into the United States to commit acts of sabotage. Initially, they wore their uniforms, but upon detection by the coast guard, they changed into civilian clothes. After being arrested by the FBI, all four were charged as being spies for engaging in combat without a uniform.

In 2008, former Bosnian President Radovan Karadzic, known as the Butcher of Bosnia, was arrested and charged with war crimes for allegedly trying to exterminate Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croat civilians during the Bosnian war from 1992-1995. The attempted extermination of these individuals, also known as genocide, is considered a crime against humanity.

In 2007, Dustin Heard, Evan Liberty, Nicholas Slatten and Paul Slough, four privately contracted security guards, engaged a group of Iraqi civilians who they claimed were armed. In the end, 14 civilians were dead and the guards were tried in the United States Federal court system for murdering non-combatants, a crime against humanity.

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