Mass atrocity crimes

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Atrocity crimes refer to the three legally defined international crimes of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.[1] In 2017 the International Criminal Court (ICC) will be deciding upon whether or not to include crimes of aggression within their jurisdiction; effectively adding a fourth atrocity crime.[2][needs update] These crimes are defined in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide,[3] the 1949 Geneva Conventions and their 1977 Additional Protocols, and the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Crimes Against Humanity[edit]

The crime of Crimes Against Humanity is defined, by the Rome Statute, as;

For the purpose of this Statute, ‘crime against humanity’ means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:
(a) Murder;
(b) Extermination;
(c) Enslavement;
(d) Deportation or forcible transfer of population;
(e) Imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law;
(f) Torture;
(g) Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity;
(h) Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court;
(i) Enforced disappearance of persons;
(j) The crime of apartheid;
(k) Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health.
2. For the purpose of paragraph 1:
(a) ‘Attack directed against any civilian population’ means a course of conduct involving the multiple commission of acts referred to in paragraph 1 against any civilian population, pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy to commit such attack;
(b) ‘Extermination’ includes the intentional infliction of conditions of life, inter alia the deprivation of access to food and medicine, calculated to bring about the destruction of part of a population;
(c) ‘Enslavement’ means the exercise of any or all of the powers attaching to the right of ownership over a person and includes the exercise of such power in the course of trafficking in persons, in particular women and children;
(d) ‘Deportation or forcible transfer of population’ means forced displacement of the persons concerned by expulsion or other coercive acts from the area in which they are lawfully present, without grounds permitted under international law;
(e) ‘Torture’ means the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, upon a person in the custody or under the control of the accused; except that torture shall not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to, lawful sanctions;
(f) ‘Forced pregnancy’ means the unlawful confinement of a woman forcibly made pregnant, with the intent of affecting the ethnic composition of any population or carrying out other grave violations of international law. This definition shall not in any way be interpreted as affecting national laws relating to pregnancy;
(g) ‘Persecution’ means the intentional and severe deprivation of fundamental rights contrary to international law by reason of the identity of the group or collectivity;
(h) ‘The crime of apartheid’ means inhumane acts of a character similar to those referred to in paragraph 1, committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime;
(i) ‘Enforced disappearance of persons’ means the arrest, detention or abduction of persons by, or with the authorization, support or acquiescence of, a State or a political organization, followed by a refusal to acknowledge that deprivation of freedom or to give information on the fate or whereabouts of those persons, with the intention of removing them from the protection of the law for a prolonged period of time.
3. For the purpose of this Statute, it is understood that the term ‘gender’ refers to the two sexes, male and female, within the context of society. The term ‘gender’ does not indicate any meaning different from the above.[4]


Genocide is defined in international law in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Article II reads:[3]

"...any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, such as:
(a) Killing members of the group;
(b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
(c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
(d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
(e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group."

War Crimes[edit]

War crimes, in part, are defined in the Rome Statute as:

  1. Grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, namely, any of the following acts against persons or property protected under the provisions of the relevant Geneva Convention:
    1. Willful killing, or causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health
    2. Torture or inhumane treatment
    3. Unlawful wanton destruction or appropriation of property
    4. Forcing a prisoner of war to serve in the forces of a hostile power
    5. Depriving a prisoner of war of a fair trial
    6. Unlawful deportation, confinement or population transfer|transfer
    7. Taking hostages[4]

The UN Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes recognizes that the 1949 Geneva Conference protects four groups of people in armed conflict:

  1. The wounded and sick in armed forces in the field
  2. The wounded, sick and shipwrecked members of armed forces at sea
  3. Prisoners of war
  4. Civilian persons[1]

Individuals protected underneath the 1977 Additional Protocol I and II are also protected.[5]

Crime of Aggression[edit]

Adopted by the Assembly of States Parties during the Review Conference of the Rome Statute, held in Kampala, Uganda between May 31 and June 11, 2010, the “crime of aggression” is the planned, preparation, initiation, or execution of the use of armed force by a State against the sovereignty, territorial integrity or political independence of another State.

The act of aggression includes, invasion, military occupation, and annexation by the use of force, blockade of the ports or coasts, if it is considered being, by its character, gravity and scale, a manifest violation of the Charter of the United Nations.[6]

Legal Jurisdiction[edit]

International Criminal Court[edit]

The International Criminal Court (ICC) only has jurisdiction over those who have violated any of the Mass Atrocity Crimes (the Crime of Aggression will officially become a criminal offense that can be tried at the ICC starting January 1, 2017). Though the Court itself is not officially affiliated with the United Nations, the Security Council can submit a request for an investigation to be opened by the ICC. In order for the International Criminal Court to take a case, the state must be a signed member of the Rome Statute, as this puts a country within the jurisdiction of the Court. However, if the perpetrator is tried at a National level court, the ICC does not handle the case.

Nuremberg Trials[edit]

Prior to the publication of the Rome Statute and the formation of the International Criminal Court, violators of the different Atrocity Crimes would be brought to justice through international tribunal, Nuremberg was the first such example of these tribunals. Held as an International Military Tribunal (IMT) for the Nazis, Nuremberg became the first ever trial in which Crimes Against Humanity had been held as a charge (they could not be charged with the crime of genocide, as it did not exist at the time). Of the 24 Nazi officials charged, 16 of them were found guilty of Crimes Against Humanity.[7]

ICTR & ICTY[edit]

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is the United Nations court established in 1993 to prosecute atrocity crimes committed in the Balkans in the 1990s. It addresses crimes committed from 1991 to 2001 against members of various ethnic groups in Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo and Macedonia. This was the first war crimes court established by the UN as well as the first international war crimes tribunal since the Nurenberg and Tokyo tribunals. It was established in accordance with Chapter VII of the UN Charter. The tribunal is located in The Hague, Netherlands. Since its inception, the ICTY has made precedent-setting decisions on atrocity crimes in that an individual's position does not protect them from prosecution. It has also set the precedent for individualized guilt in order to protect entire communities from being labelled "collectively responsible." It has proven that the mass murder at Srebrenica was genocide as defined by international law. The ICTY has indicted over 160 individuals. It is still operating in full capacity.[8]

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda[9] (ICTR) is an international court established by the United Nations Security Council to prosecute individuals of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes committed in Rwanda and neighboring states between the dates of 1 January 1994 and 31 December 1994. The tribunal is located in Arusha, Tanzania. The ICTR is the first international tribunal to deliver verdicts of genocide and the first to interpret the definition of genocide. It is also the first tribunal to define rape as a means of committing genocide as well as to hold members of media responsible for broadcasts as a tool of genocide. The ICTR's last trial judgement was on 20 December 2012 and is currently only working on appeals. Since it opened in 1995, 93 individuals have been indicted by the ICTR, 61 have been found guilty of international humanitarian crimes and sentenced, 10 have been referred to national jurisdictions, 3 individuals died prior to verdicts, 3 fugitives have been referred to the MICT and 2 indictments were withdrawn before their trials started.[10]

Responsibility to Protect[edit]

At the 2005 World Summit, the United Nations member states made a commitment to protect against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity (This document extended the definition of atrocity crimes to include ethnic cleansing).[11] This document is not law, but rather holds all states responsible to protect their own populations from atrocity crimes and additionally holds the international community responsible for holding states' accountable for their populations. In accordance with Chapters VI, VII, and VIII of the Charter, the United Nations acknowledges its responsibility to help protect all populations through peaceful means, as well as through collective action when necessary.


  1. ^ a b "Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes: A Tool for Prevention" (PDF). United Nations Office of the Prevention of Genocide. 2014.
  2. ^ "The ICC Crime of Aggression and the Changing International Security Landscape". U.S. Department of State. Retrieved 2016-04-25.
  3. ^ a b "The Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide" (PDF). Adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on 9 December 1948.
  4. ^ a b "Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court" (PDF). International Criminal Court. Entered into force on 1 July 2002.
  5. ^ "ICRC databases on international humanitarian law". 2010-03-23. Retrieved 2016-04-26.
  6. ^ "Understanding the International Criminal Court" (PDF). International Criminal Court. p. 14.
  7. ^ "Crimes against humanity". International Crime Database.
  8. ^ "About the ICTY". International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Retrieved 2016-04-26.
  9. ^ International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Genocide and Other Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of Rwanda and Rwandan Citizens Responsible for Genocide and Other Such Violations Committed in the Territory of Neighbouring States, between 1 January 1994 and 31 December 1994, French: "Tribunal pénal international pour le Rwanda (TPIR)". Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.
  10. ^ "The ICTR in Brief | United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda". Retrieved 2016-04-26.
  11. ^ United Nations General Assembly, 60th session | 2005 World Summit Outcome (A/60/L.1), 31-2. 15 September 2005.