War crimes, crimes against humanity, even “genocide”, as US President Joe Biden declared for the first time on Tuesday, referring to Russia’s actions in Ukraine, are very precise notions of international law.
They emerged after World War II, at the same time that the Nuremberg International Tribunal was implemented to judge Nazi crimes .
Those notions are at the heart of the powers of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which opened an investigation into the situation in Ukraine on March 3.
They can also depend on national jurisdictions when they have powers in matters of universal justice, as is the case in Germany, Belgium, Spain, France or Switzerland.
“War crimes” are defined as serious violations of international law committed against civilians or combatants in an armed conflict, and which generate the individual criminal responsibility of their perpetrators, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
These crimes correspond to violations of the Geneva Conventions, adopted in 1949, after World War II.
Its most recent codification is found in article 8 of the Rome Statute of 1998, the founder of the ICC.
This article defines more than 50 examples of war crimes, including murder, torture, kidnapping, use of child soldiers, illegal deportations, intentional attacks on civilians, rape, looting or intentional attacks on missions of humanitarian aid or peacekeeping.
The use of prohibited weapons that “cause useless suffering” or strike “indiscriminately” are also war crimes.
The ICC, whose headquarters are in The Hague, was created in 2002 and is in charge of judging these crimes as well as crimes against humanity and genocide.
Crimes against humanity
The notion of crime against humanity was created and defined on August 8, 1945, by article 6 of the statutes of the Nuremberg International Tribunal.
This crime is defined as “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation or any other inhuman act committed against any civilian population, before or during the war, or persecution for racial or religious reasons”.
It was created retrospectively to try Nazi criminals whose crimes had not previously been imagined.