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FAQs: War crimes


What is a war crime?

A war crime is a breach of international laws relating to armed conflict that can give rise to individual criminal responsibility. War crimes are distinct from crimes against humanity, genocide and crimes of aggression. Acts considered war crimes under international law include murder, torture, rape, intentionally attacking civilians, conscripting children and taking hostages.

How did international law on war crimes arise?

International law on war crimes is created by treaties between countries. The most significant treaties include the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Rome Statute of 1998.

Does the UK’s own law prohibit war crimes?

The UK legislature has introduced statutes to integrate international treaties on war crimes into domestic law. These include the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, the War Crimes Act 1991 and the International Criminal Court Act 2001. Some critics point to inconsistencies in the UK’s capacity to prosecute international criminals. For example, for certain war crimes only those who are “resident” in the UK can be prosecuted, meaning suspects can make short visits to the UK without fear of arrest.

How is the law on war crimes enforced?

Many countries have prosecuted individuals for war crimes under their national laws. In the UK there have been successful prosecutions under the War Crimes Act 1991 (of a Nazi war criminal) and under the Criminal Justice Act 1988 (for torture committed in Afghanistan in the 1990’s). A famous case was that of Adolf Eichmann, a high profile Nazi, who in 1960 was tracked down in Argentina by Israeli agents, kidnapped and taken to Israel where he was brought to trial and subsequently hanged.
Internationally, war crimes have been prosecuted on an ad hoc basis. This involves the creation of tribunals by the international community in the aftermath of wars. After World War II the Allies set up the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals in order to prosecute Nazi and Japanese individuals suspected of committing war crimes. In 1993 and 1994 International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda were established in response to the atrocities committed in those regions. This led to defendants including Slobodan Milošević being brought to trial.
In 1998 a number of countries agreed to the Rome Statute. The aim of this was to develop a uniform and global system for prosecuting war crimes. This resulted in the creation of a permanent tribunal, the International Criminal Court (ICC), which opened in the Hague in 2002.

Does the ICC have universal power to bring war crimes suspects to trial?

The ICC does not have its own police force and relies on its members to arrest and surrender suspects. To date 121 countries have signed up to the Rome Statute under which they undertake to submit to the jurisdiction of the ICC. There are notable exceptions however, including the US, China and Russia. A number of people have been prosecuted at the ICC and imprisoned, with prominent indictees including former Liberian president Charles Taylor.
If you would like to obtain legal advice on war crimes, Contact Law can put you in touch with a local solicitor free of charge. So, if you have any questions or would like our help in finding local solicitors please call us on 0800 046 1464 or complete the web-form above.
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