What is a War Crime?

07 June 2022

We often hear the phrase ‘war crimes,’ but typically there is very little explanation regarding what they entail. Understanding what a war crime is helps increase awareness of what refugees upended by war and conflict often face. According to the United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, here are a few war crimes that civilians caught in conflict zones may be fleeing: 

  1. Extensive destruction and appropriation of property, such as homes and vehicles, that are not part of a military objective.
  2. Taking hostages, or the forcible confinement of a person or persons for the purpose of using them as leverage in a bargain the hostage-takers are trying to make.
  3. Conscripting or enlisting children as child soldiers under the age of fifteen years.  
  4. Declaring that no quarter will be given, which means that soldiers are expected to show no mercy to anybody they encounter, military or civilian.
  5. Intentionally directing attacks against buildings, material, medical units and transport, and personnel using the distinctive emblems of the Geneva Conventions, such as firing on a medic or a member of the press who is clearly displaying the appropriate insignia.
  6. Summary Executions, which are executions committed without a trial.
  7. Pillaging, or taking resources by force from a civilian area.
  8. War crimes of a sexual nature include “rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, [and]enforced sterilization.”
  9. Employing chemical weapons, such as mustard gas, sarin gas, nerve gas, or Agent Orange.
  10. Torture or inhuman treatment, either of members of the military or civilians. This may include deprivation of food or water, or inhumane medical experiments. 

These are just a few of the war crimes that could be prosecuted. It is usually only the victorious force that prosecutes war criminals, which means countless victims will never receive justice. 

Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) is on the ground providing welcome and a safe space for refugees forced to flee from their homes.  JRS has a number of programs including education programs, livelihoods training, financial assistance, food, water, and shelter. We are committed to empowering refugees to become “people with a voice of their own” working together to challenge systems that deny them their human rights.