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What is a War Criminal?

Mary McMahon
Updated Feb 25, 2024
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A war criminal is someone who has been convicted of war crimes, crimes which violate international treaties and rules of engagement during periods of war. Typically, war criminals are prosecuted by third party courts or through specially established tribunals and conventions in their nations of origin. Some notable war criminals include Slobodon Milosevic, Hideki Tojo, and Saddam Hussein. Unfortunately for their victims, many war criminals successfully evade justice.

The definition of “war crimes” is a bit nebulous, which can lead to difficulties in attempts to prosecute suspected war criminals. Essentially, war crimes are crimes which are deemed to be gross violations of agreements such as the Geneva Convention, which are supposed to guarantee humane treatment of prisoners of war and govern a variety of other rules of conduct during periods of warfare. Other war crimes violate more general agreements and conventions; a war criminal might commit genocide, for example, or force children to serve as soldiers in his or her army. Both members of the military and civilians can be prosecuted for war crimes.

One of the most prominent courts involved in the prosecution of war criminals is the International Criminal Court (ICC), in the Hague, Netherlands. The ICC was created in 2002 in response to growing international concerns about war crimes; by law, it can only prosecute crimes which have been committed after 1 July, 2002 and it may only preside over cases as a court of last resort. The crimes which the ICC is allowed to prosecute are also very limited, to ensure that the court does not abuse its authority.

A proper investigation into the activities of an accused war criminal can take months or years. Some war criminals are active members of their governments, and during the period in which the crimes concerned were committed, the war criminal may have had the support of his or her government. This often means that the actions of a war criminal are well concealed and covered up, making it extremely difficult to build a case. Testimony from victims can be an extremely useful tool, as can forensic examination of mass graves and suspected sites of criminal activity.

A war criminal can be convicted of “crimes against humanity” such as genocide, along with crimes of aggression and failure to follow established military protocol. As one might imagine, the punishments for war criminals vary, depending on the type and magnitude of the crimes they are convicted of. Many countries have set up special tribunals for the purpose of investigating and prosecuting war criminals after periods of prolonged warfare, especially civil war.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGeek researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By msladycrs — On Sep 07, 2008

I need help i have to do a research on criminal justice

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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