What are war crimes?

Murder, rape, torture… the chaos of wartime often leads to impunity for the crimes committed by the parties at war. These crimes car be carried out against combatants as well as innocent civilians.

Not all violations committed during war are legally considered war crimes. To qualify, they must fulfil certain criteria of purpose and gravity, notably:

  • Existence of an armed conflict
  • Nexus between the conduct and the armed conflict (the crime was committed in pursuit of the conflict’s aim)
  • Serious violation of international humanitarian law
  • Criminal conduct engaging individual criminal responsibility

Unlike other human rights violations, war crimes do not engage State responsibility but individual criminal responsibility. This means that individuals can be tried and found personally responsible for these crimes.

Prohibited acts include:

  • Murder;
  • Torture or other cruel or inhuman treatment (including mutilation);
  • Taking hostages;
  • Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population;
  • Intentionally directing attacks against buildings dedicated to religion, education, art, science or charitable purposes, historical monuments or hospitals;
  • Pillage
  • Rape and other forms of sexual violence
  • Conscription or enlisting children under the age of 15 years into armed forces or groups or using them to participate actively in hostilities.
  • Unlawful deportation transfer or confinement of protected persons.


Where and by whom can war crimes be prosecuted?

Domestic courts are usually responsible for prosecuting war crimes. It can, however, prove impossible during or in the aftermath of a conflict: the regime that perpetrated the crimes may still be in power, the conflict may have left the judicial infrastructure biased or inoperative, etc. Therefore, other institutions are also competent to prosecute war crimes: international, mixed and hybrid tribunals, and the International Criminal Court.

In accordance with the Geneva conventions, war crimes must also be prosecuted in countries other than those where the crimes were committed, on the basis of universal jurisdiction. It has been the case in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland, for example.

In spite of these developments, countless crimes remain unpunished, and many war criminals continue to benefit from – and operate with – complete impunity.

TRIAL International acts against war crimes

TRIAL represents victims to help them receive justice and fights against the impunity of perpetrators and their accomplices.

Representing victims

In the countries where it operates, TRIAL International documents war crimes and represents victims before national and international bodies, such as the United Nations Human Rights Committee and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary and arbitrary executions.

Building cases against perpetrators

TRIAL International collects and analyses information from victims, victims associations, witnesses and other reliable sources to develop dossiers on suspected perpetrators of war crimes. It then submits this information to the competent authorities for further investigation and prosecution.

Over the years, the oganization has submitted dozens of cases to domestic authorities where suspected war criminals were residing or passing, urging them to exercise universal jurisdiction to prosecute these individuals. Over half of the cases filed have lead the authorities to open criminal investigations, and convictions have already been pronounced in certain cases. TRIAL International also files complaints against corporations for their participation to war crimes.