The difference between war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide

Russia is accused of war crimes in Ukraine, with allegations growing stronger following the discovery of dozens of bodies in areas recently retaken from Russian forces near the capital kyiv.

Communal workers prepare to transport a corpse in a body bag on a street in Bucha, not far from the Ukrainian capital of kyiv, on April 3, 2022. Photo: Sergei Supinsky/AFP

PARIS — Russia is accused of war crimes in Ukraine, with accusations growing stronger following the discovery of dozens of bodies in areas recently recaptured from Russian forces near the capital kyiv.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has accused Moscow of attempting “genocide” over the findings and called the bloody siege of the southern port of Mariupol a “crime against humanity”.

We look at the different categories of the most serious crimes known to man, which the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague was created to prosecute.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine is a party to the ICC, but Ukraine has accepted the court’s jurisdiction over alleged crimes committed on its soil since Russia’s invasion of Crimea.

The ICC prosecutor general opened an investigation on March 3 into possible war crimes in Ukraine.

WHAT IS A WAR CRIME?
War crimes are serious violations of international law against civilians and combatants during armed conflict.

The parameters of what constitutes such a crime are set out in Article 8 of the 1998 Rome Statute which established the ICC.

It defines them as “grave breaches” of the 1949 Geneva Conventions covering more than 50 scenarios, including murder, torture, rape and hostage taking as well as attacks on humanitarian missions.

It also covers deliberate attacks against civilians or “undefended towns, villages, dwellings or buildings which are not military objectives” as well as the “deportation or transfer of all or part of the population” of an occupied territory.

WHAT IS A CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY?

The notion of such a crime was first posed on August 8, 1945 and codified in Article 7 of the Rome Statute. It involves “widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population”, including “murder” and “extermination” as well as “enslavement” and “deportation or forcible transfer”.

Crimes against humanity can occur in times of peace and include torture, rape and discrimination, whether racial, ethnic, cultural, religious or gender-based.

WHAT IS GENOCIDE?

Genocide as a legal concept dates back to the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, with Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coining the term to describe the Nazi extermination of six million Jews.

The crime of genocide was formally created in the 1948 Genocide Convention to describe “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.

Genocide is a “very specific international crime” that is difficult to prove, says Cecily Rose, professor of international law at Leiden University in the Netherlands, noting that it requires proof of the “mental motivation” that caused it. underlies.

NEWCOMER: CRIME OF AGGRESSION

The ICC added a crime of aggression to its terms of reference in 2017 to include attacks on “the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence” of another country.

The offense is intended to ensure that political and military leaders are held accountable for invasions and other major attacks, but cannot be used against the dozens of ICC members who have failed to recognize the court’s jurisdiction over the crime.

The ICC also cannot indict the leader of a country that is not a member of the ICC for the crime of aggression.

Legal experts say bringing such a case against Russia may require the creation of a special court.

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