Like famous English writer George Orwell says “War is a way of shattering to pieces... materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable and... too intelligent”. Although war is itself an evil thing, even war has some rules. War crime as a dictionary definition means “any of various crimes, such as genocide or the mistreatment of prisoners of war, committed during a war and considered in violation of the conventions of warfare”. War crimes include “violations of established protections of the laws of war such as the mistreatment of prisoners of war or civilians, but also include failures to adhere to norms of procedure and rules of battle, such as attacking those displaying a flag of truce, or using that same flag as a ruse of war to mount an attack”. In order to prevent war crimes especially after the terrible events of the Second World War, many international organizations and institutions including international humanitarian law, International Criminal Court, European Court of Justice etc were established. These institutions are independent, not connected with any country and founded to protect justice and peace throughout the world. They try to find a solution to the detrimental impacts of wars like the violation of international agreements, ill-treatment of war prisoners and civilians as well as crimes against the human rights.
This assignment is an attempt to make a study on war crimes. It will be argued that war crimes cannot be justified and they are great evils to humanity which should be punished severely. In order to arrive at that point, first; war crimes will be defined and exemplified from world history. Secondly, the historical development of mechanisms that aim to eliminate war crimes will be explained. Thirdly, the consequences of war crimes will be analyzed and “why war crimes cannot be justified” will be explained in detail.
The concept of “war crimes” is not very old. Before the Second World War, it was a common sense that the savageries of war are in the nature of the war. However, during the Second World War the murder of six million Jewish people (known as the Holocaust) by Nazi Germany and the crimes that are committed by other countries like the mistreatment of both civilians and prisoners of war by the Japanese Army, became an incentive for allied countries to prosecute people who they believed as criminal. “SS leaders referred to the killing of Jews euphemistically as special treatment. At first they murdered only those who were unfit for work, but in the spring of 1942 they extended the principle to all Jews in Eastern Europe” (Lyons, pg 142). So, allied forces under the supervision of new global super power -USA-, set up “Nuremberg Trials” in order to punish Nazi officials who are responsible of Jewish genocide. The trials were held in the city of Nuremberg, Germany from 1945 to 1949, at the Nuremberg Palace of Justice. Important names of the Nazi Party such as Karl Dönitz, Herman Göring, Rudolf Hess, Alfred Jodl, Joachim Von Ribbentrop, Albert Speer and Franz Von Pappen were put on trial in front of a jury consisted of allied power prosecutors. These people and many others were given harsh punishments because of their terrible deeds during the Second World War. Because of all its savageries and ugly deeds, people who are responsible of the Second World War were extremely guilty and it was not hard to declare them as war criminals.
However, it is not always so easy to determine what a war crime really is. For example the displacement of civilians who make sabotage against their own army from their homes should not be considered as a war crime. During the World War I, the Armenians who had lived peacefully under the sovereignty of Ottoman Empire until that time, joined secretly to allied countries in accordance with the partition plan of the “sick man of Europe” which is Ottoman Empire and they started to a civil war against Ottoman Turks. As a result of these events, in order to ensure the security of public and military, these Armenians were forced to move to safer areas with the assistance of Turkish laws. This forced migration is called as “tehcir” in Turkish and it is frequently used against Turkey in order to force the country to admit that a so-called “Armenian Genocide” took place in the country in 1915. Although war and nearly everything related to war is ugly, in my opinion in the Armenian case, it must be understood that Ottoman Army did not order a genocide but for security reasons had to force Ottoman Armenians to migrate. During this trip, terrible clashes emerged between Armenian and Turkish people and thousands of people died from both sides. However, it must be noted that this was not a war crime since it was not ordered by the state but rather was a consequence of rising ethnic nationalism and separatist movements in a decaying state. Moreover, a country should not be blamed and put on trial because of an ex-regime. If we accuse countries for their previous regimes, all European countries and USA must be put on trial because of their deeds against Native Americans (Aztecs, Mayas and Indians) starting from 16th century. This shows us clearly that war crimes must be defined carefully and not all the deeds of war should be labeled as war crime.
Over the past four decades we have witnessed the environmental devastation caused by militaries and governments because of the disasters like the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and the Kosovo conflict. According to the books that are used for that proposal, for example in Ramsey Clark’s book “US War Crimes in The Gulf”, the author states that in order to succeed with ease, US missiles in the Gulf War firstly exploded places like hospitals and energy centrals which have vital importance to Iraqi people besides its strategic value. Ramsey Clark thinks that “bombing of Iraq’s cities and infrastructure had nothing to do with driving Iraq from Kuwait” which was the official pretext of the war (Clark, pg 59). Even though under the Geneva Conventions, devastating a country’s power stations, bridges and roads are not included to the definition of war crimes if they are used for military purposes, can they be seen as legitimate targets? How can exploding a country’s hospitals where civilians are also cured cannot be accepted as a war crime? “The evidence shows that the Pentagon intended the bombing to destroy Iraq’s civilian economy and make the country dependent on the West” (Clark, pg 62). In addition, it is known that these bombing led to the death of many civilians during the Gulf War although USA officials declared that “everything possible was done to avoid civilian casualties” (Clark, pg 69). Moreover, when a country is accepted as a strategic partners because of good trade relations (Kuwait for its oil resource for instance) American government seems to forget human rights issue. Ramsey Clark claims that “President Bush not only ignored human rights violations in Kuwait and restored its antidemocratic government; he repeatedly encouraged vigilante violence there” (Clark, pg 113). “In Iraq and Kuwait, the destruction unleashed by Desert Storm has been massive. More than half a million Iraqis lie dead or wounded” (Smith, pg 253). These are clear evidences that even the most fanatic advocate (!) of preventing war crimes engage in war crimes and this problem is really very serious.
In Bertrand Russell’s book “War Crimes in Vietnam”, the author explains that US started a war against Vietnam in order to prevent the foundation of a Communist Vietnam because Americans think that communist countries violate human rights and closed command economies will never work efficiently unlike liberal free-market economy. That is why, USA following France invaded Vietnam and during the war between US and Vietnam, it is seen that USA itself violated human rights by using chemical weapons as well as highly destructive napalm bombs caused the deaths of thousands of innocent civilians (Russell, pg 72). According to Russell in Vietnam War US Army used chemical weapons such as “Dinitrophenol, Dinitricorto, Acid Diclophenocynecetic and Acid 2-4-5 Triclophenocyacetic” (Russell, pg 175). Besides, this war was made against a country’s independence which is itself a war crime since countries are considered as equal and free. Vietnam War led to the death of hundred thousands of people no matter how many from Vietnam or USA and moreover, because of Vietnamization effect people who come back from this war had serious psychological problems. Anti-Americanism in the world grew out of Vietnam crisis but American youth’s demonstrations against this imperialist war in which many war crimes were committed, forced President Nixon to withdraw American troops from Vietnam at the end. In addition to the terrible war crimes that took place in Vietnam War and the Gulf War, last “ethnic cleansing” made by Serbians against Muslim Bosnians after the collapse of Yugoslavia at the center of Europe in the eyes of billions of people is a scandalous war crime. After the war, former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and some others who are accused of war crimes, are put on trial by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia which was established in May 1993.
Starting from the Second World War, there is a visible effort to cope with war crimes problem. Nuremberg principles which were derived from Nuremberg Trials constitute the basis of war crimes conception. There were seven important articles related to Nuremberg principles such as principle 1 stating that “Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefore and liable to punishment”, principle 2 claiming that “The fact that internal law does not impose a penalty for an act which constitutes a crime under international law does not relieve the person who committed the act from responsibility under international law” and principle 3 expressing that “The fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law acted as Head of State or responsible government official does not relieve him from responsibility under international law” . The mentality guiding these principles was that “an individual can be held responsible for the actions of a country or that nation's soldiers” and an individual has chance not to obey to the orders that are against humanity. So, the fourth Geneva Convention was held on 12 August 1949 in order to substantiate the laws that would protect “civilians during times of war in the hands of an enemy and under any occupation by a foreign power”. In parallel with these principles and laws, International Tribunals were established after all important wars in order to detect and punish war criminals. Finally, in the year 2002 “The International Criminal Court (ICC) was established as a permanent tribunal to “prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, as defined by several international agreements, most prominently the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court”. There are some other international institutions that deal with war crimes, such as the International Court of Justice and the European Court of Justice. All these institutions work for abolishing wars and war crimes from our world. The statutes of the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague (ICTY) defines crime against humanity as crimes committed in armed conflict but directed against a civilian population and makes a list of war crimes:
- Persecutions on political, racial and religious grounds
War crimes’ consequences are very dangerous. Since wars create a hostile environment, many cruel things can happen during a war. The murder of six million people in gas rooms, prisons, concentration camps by Nazis in the Second World War because of their Jewish identity shows us how dangerous can war crimes become. As far as I am concerned, war crimes cannot and should not be justified. Although we live in democratic liberal world, there are unfortunately still wars, political conflicts, and invasions. Struggle against war crimes at least reduce the level of violence of these clashes. Without these laws wars could turn into ethnic cleansings, genocides and attacks on civilians. Although war crimes could not abolish the problem of war completely, as I said before at least it protects civilians to be hurt and death because of wars.
When all the things above are considered, it can be said that in the occurrence of war crimes, the role of powerful countries such as USA cannot be neglected. If they are outside of the war, they can become the best authority to prevent war crimes but if they are inside of the war, they may be the main reason of these cruel crimes. The history shows us that although USA made many important steps to prevent war crimes, it does not hesitate to use implement war crimes in order to weaken its enemies during wars like the Vietnam War and the Gulf War. Today, in invaded Iraq US soldiers are still engaged in very unethical behaviors such as bombing mosques, torturing Iraqi resistance fighters and taking their nude photos in order to decrease their morale. This shows that these international laws and tribunals should be applicable to all countries in order to work effectively. Generally, it is difficult to say that crimes that are committed during wars may have justifiable points. They may only be seen as beneficial if they are committed to get information from the enemy. However, since this method can also be used by the other side, this cannot be advantageous and if wars have to made, they should be made according to its proper rules.
Unfortunately, we still do not live in a peaceful, rich world. People from different countries still suffer from many different problems such as hunger, unemployment, poverty, pollution, repressive regimes, invasions, wars etc. However, struggle against war crimes is a benevolent effort to reduce these problems and it should be supported seriously by the all responsible people around the world. What had taken place in Bosnia must be a lesson for all humans and especially for Europeans who did not do anything to stop the genocide. Like George Orwell said “All the war-propaganda, all the screaming and lies and hatred, comes invariably from people who are not fighting” and that is why at least people who actually fight must obey to the rules of war by protecting civilians and not obeying to the rules that are against humanity.
- Clark, Ramsey. US War Crimes in The Gulf. New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 1992
- Smith, Jean Edward. George Bush’s War. New York: Fitzhenry & Whiteside, 1992
- Russell, Bertrand. War Crimes in Vietnam. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1967
- Lyons, Michael J. World War II A Short History. New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 1994
- Mercier, Michele. Crimes Without Punishment. London: Pluto Press, 1994
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 “The Holocaust is the name applied to the systematic state-sponsored persecution and genocide of the Jews of Europe and North Africa along with other groups during World War II by Nazi Germany and collaborators” (Wikipedia.org).
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 “The term ethnic cleansing entered the English lexicon as a loan translation of the Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian phrase etničko čišćenje. During the 1990s it was used extensively by the media in the former Yugoslavia in relation to the Yugoslav wars, and appears to have been popularized by the international media some time around 1992” (Wikipedia.org).
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 “What is a war crime?”, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/europe/1420133.stm