Home News War crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide: what’s the difference?

War crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide: what’s the difference?


Since the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine on February 24, the notions of “war crime”, “crime against humanity”, even “genocide”, as Joe Biden first declared on Tuesday 12 April, have often returned to the incriminations against the actions of the Kremlin.

These notions were born in the aftermath of the Second World War with the establishment of the International Tribunal of Nuremberg to judge the crimes of the Nazis. They are at the heart of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, which recently opened an investigation into the “crimes” caused by Vladimir Putin in Ukraine. But what is the difference between these three concepts?

war crimes

“War crimes” are defined as serious violations of international law committed against civilians or combatants during an armed conflict and which entail the individual criminal responsibility of their perpetrators, according to the Office of the High Commissioner of the United Nations for Human Rights (OHCHR).

These crimes correspond to violations of the Geneva Conventions, adopted in the aftermath of the Second World War, in 1949.

Their most recent codification is found in Article 8 of the 1998 Rome Statute, founding the International Criminal Court (ICC).

This article defines over 50 examples of war crimes, including homicide, torture, hostage taking, use of child soldiers, unlawful deportations, intentional attacks on civilians, rape, looting or intentional attacks against humanitarian aid or peacekeeping missions.

The use of gas, or generally prohibited weapons that can cause “unnecessary suffering” or “indiscriminate strike” such as cluster munitions, is also considered a war crime.

Among the convictions for “war crimes”, we find for example the case of the former Congolese warlord Bosco Ntaganda, in November 2019, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison, the heaviest sentence ever handed down at the time. by the ICC, for war crimes and crimes against humanity in the DRC in the early 2000s.

crimes against humanity

Created and defined on August 8, 1945 by article 6 of the statutes of the International Tribunal of Nuremberg, the crime against humanity is defined as “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation and any other inhumane act committed against any civilian population, before or during the war, or persecution on racial or religious grounds”.

It was created a posteriori to try Nazi criminals whose crimes had not been previously imagined.

This notion was later codified in Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the ICC which states that crimes against humanity are acts such as murder, extermination, rape, persecution and all other inhumane acts, committed “as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack”.

The Genocide

Described as a “crime committed with intent to destroy, or all or part of, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”, the term “genocide” has been used, from a legal point of view, for the first time during the Nuremberg trials to designate the extermination of the Jews.

It then became part of international law in 1948 under the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.

For example, the Srebrenica massacre in eastern Bosnia, in which nearly 8,000 Muslim boys and men were murdered in 1995 by Bosnian Serbs, was recognized in 2007 as genocide by the International Court of justice (ICJ). Former Bosnian Serb political and military leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic were sentenced to life imprisonment.