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Can Civilians Commit War Crimes?

War crimes are horrendous acts that violate the laws of war. Acts such as torture, enslavement, murder, sexual violence, and imprisonment may be considered war crimes under international law. They are often committed during a military conflict, which leads people to associate war crimes with soldiers. So, can civilians commit war crimes?

TLDR – Civilians can commit war crimes and be prosecuted for them. Under most accepted definitions of war crimes, perpetrators may include members of the armed forces or civilians. 

Can Civilians Be Charged with War Crimes?

Civilians can be charged with war crimes. Most military manuals recognize a war crime as being any violation committed by members of the armed forces or by civilians against members of the armed forces or civilians. 

Sixty countries signed the Rome Statute, which led to the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC). One hundred twenty-three countries are now state parties to the statute. 

The ICC was not the first international criminal court. After World War II, the Allied nations established the International Military Tribunal to try Germans for various war crimes and atrocities. 

The International Military Tribunal prosecuted German generals, officials, and Nazi leaders. The trials were held in Nuremberg, Germany between 1945 and 1946. 

After the Nuremberg Trials, 196 countries participated in the fourth Geneva convention. Article 3 of the convention focused on humanitarian protections for civilians during combat. These protections were expanded and clarified with the Rome Statute and the establishment of the ICC.

The ICC investigates and prosecutes war criminals. The crimes that fall under the jurisdiction of the ICC include war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.

The ICC can only try a case if the offense was committed in a country that signed the Rome Statute. They may also try cases if the perpetrator is a citizen of a country that is a party to the statute. Additionally, the national court must be unable or unwilling to prosecute the crime.

For example, if a civilian committed a war crime in Bosnia and the national court of Bosnia could not prosecute the case, the ICC may try the criminal.

War Crimes

What Happens If You Commit a War Crime?

The US Government defines a war crime as a breach of any of the Geneva conventions. The government may try a person for war crimes if the individual or the victim is a member of the US Armed Forces or a US citizen. 

Under US code 18 2441, committing a war crime is punishable by life imprisonment. If the victim dies as the result of the war crime, the criminal may be subject to the death penalty. However, the United States has not tried a civilian with war crimes.

If the United States refuses to try a criminal for war crimes committed on the soil of another party-state of the Rome Statute, the ICC may try the case. 

Before the ICC can try a case, it needs to be referred to the court. The prosecutor of the ICC, the United Nations Security Council, and any country that signed the Rome Statute may refer a case to the court for investigation.

The ICC is currently investigating potential war crimes in several African nations, including Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, the Central African Republic (CAR), and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

The ICC also received authorization to investigate potential war crimes committed by US service members who served in Afghanistan. When announcing the investigation, the ICC also noted that they have reason to believe that Taliban fighters also committed war crimes. 

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What Are Examples of War Crimes?

The United States and the ICC consider war crimes to be any conduct prohibited by Article 3 of the international conventions signed in Geneva in 1949. The Geneva conventions prohibit torture, inhuman treatment, biological experiments, murder, mutilation, serious bodily injury, rape, sexual assault, and taking hostages.

The act may be considered a war crime if the victim suffers severe mental pain, serious bodily injury, or death. However, injuries or deaths caused by a lawful attack are not considered war crimes.

For example, when armed forces conduct an aerial bombing raid that unintentionally kills innocent civilians, they are unlikely to be charged with a war crime. If the armed forces intentionally target civilians who do not pose a threat to military personnel, they may be charged with a crime.

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