War crimes, which are often referred to as crimes against humanity, are violations of the customs or laws of warfare. There was no clear definition of this term prior to World War I, but in the aftermath discussions about war crimes and what should be done to punish those who commit them began between several countries. The Treaty of Versailles from 1919 was one of the first documents to discuss war crimes, and the authors attempted to create a list of offenses that would qualify. They had great difficulty agreeing on what should or should not be criminalized during a time of war, and only found even more dissension as they attempted to decide on proper forms of punishment. The idea of establishing an International Court of Justice was brought up, but not accepted by the majority of the participants.
The subject of war crimes was addressed in much greater detail following World War II. Members of the Allied Forces set up international tribunals at Nuremberg and Tokyo to deliver judgment on the criminal acts perpetrated during the war. These tribunals laid down the principles which remain the foundation for international criminal law today. By 1946, the United Nations General Assembly had confirmed these “principles of international law”, and began to create resolutions which set forth punishment for persons guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity.
Today, most war crimes are now punishable in two ways: death or long term imprisonment. In order to be given one of these sentences, any instance of a war crime must be taken to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC was founded on July 1, 2002 for the purpose of bringing war criminals to trial. The power of the court is based on a treaty, and 108 separate countries support it.
There are a few qualifications that must be met before a case can be tried at the ICC. The crime must fall under one of the categories the court is considered to have jurisdiction over. These include genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. These topics are somewhat broad and can include many specific offenses, but one notable exclusion is any act of terrorism.
Only the nations that have agreed to and signed the ICC treaty are expected to adhere to the authority of the court, so military personnel who are from non participating territories cannot be subjected to a trial regardless of the war crimes they may have committed. Crimes that are eligible to be heard by the ICC must have been committed after the date the court was officially established. No matters that took place before that day will be considered. War crimes that meet all of the requirements for an ICC hearing may be brought to trial, so a decision can be made on how to punish the guilty parties.