Prevention of Atrocities

The term atrocities refers to genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and ethnic cleansing. The first three are international crimes that emerged in the context of seeking to establish individual criminal accountability for some of humanity’s worst crimes. Genocide and crimes against humanity developed following the Nuremberg Trials in connection with the prosecutions of Nazi criminals.

Genocide as an international crime is enshrined in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The Convention defines genocide as the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” through killing members of the group, causing serious bodily or mental harm, inflicting conditions of life on the group that could bring about its physical destruction, imposing measures to prevent births, or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

Crimes against humanity developed under international customary law and were codified in the statutes of the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda, as well as in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). A range of acts, including murder, enslavement, torture, enforced disappearances, rape and other sexual crimes may amount to crimes against humanity if they are committed in the context of “a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population”.

The traditional laws and customs of war, while regulating armed conflict, were largely silent on individual accountability. This began to change with the horrors of the First and Second World War. Today, the 1949 Geneva Conventions and the its Additional Protocols of 1977, as well as a number of treaties and customs, not only regulate the conduct and means of armed conflict, but also obligate States to prosecute or extradite perpetrators of war crimes. In the context of atrocities, war crimes then are those grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, as well as other serious violations of the laws and customs of armed conflict, that give rise to individual criminal responsibility. The Rome Statute of the ICC focuses on war crimes “when committed as part of a plan or policy or as part of a large-scale commission of such crimes”.

Ethnic cleansing is not defined as an independent crime under international law. However, it includes acts that are serious violations of international human rights and humanitarian law that may amount to genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes. Ethnic cleansing generally refers to the killing or dispelling of a group of people from a geographical area.