What Counts as a Crime Against Humanity?

Written by Christi Hayes and Fact Checked by The Law Dictionary Staff  

Crimes against humanity are a category of international law and are designed to protect populations, especially civilian populations, from the worst violations of human rights and dignity. Crimes against humanity are extremely serious and the category itself gained significant traction as a result of the worst atrocities of World War II. Despite dealing with some of the most egregious acts in history, there is some controversy about what counts as a crime against humanity. A number of documents, such as the Rome (ICC) Statute, the 1945 London Charter of the International Military Tribunal, the Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and other important documents have all helped define crimes against humanity. What follows are those crimes that are almost universally defined as crimes against humanity:

Murder and Extermination

Murder and the extermination of a demographic group are universally acknowledged as crimes against humanity. While private citizens can also be charged with murder, in the context of international law murder and extermination refer to when a state actor commits murder or extermination, usually on a mass scale. In many cases, such violent acts are perpetrated by the state against a civilian population. Extermination may be carried out on ethnic grounds. Ethnic persecution, it should be noted, is also considered its own crime against humanity.

Deportation and Forced Transfer

A government or state actor may also commit a crime against humanity if it deports or forcibly transports a segment of the civilian population against that population's will. These acts are part of a broader attack against the population and are usually performed in conjunction with other crimes against humanity.

False Imprisonment, Torture, and Disappearance

In many cases, a state that perpetrates crimes against humanity will resort to tactics such as false imprisonment, torture, and forced disappearances. All three of these acts are illegal under international law and they violate human rights protections. With false imprisonment, people may be held against their will on false or trumped up charges. Again, such acts are often perpetrated against a segment of the population.

Rape and Sexual Slavery

Sexual crimes, such as rape and sexual slavery, have long been recognized as crimes against humanity. Such crimes are most often carried out against civilians and are often directed towards specific ethnic groups. Rape and sexual slavery are not only egregious violations of human dignity, but they also work to humiliate and demoralize certain segments of the population.

Other Crimes against Humanity

Of course, many crimes against humanity tend to overlap and the above list is by no means exhaustive. In addition to the above offenses, other crimes may include apartheid, forced sterilization, persecutions on ethnic, religious, or political grounds, enslavement, and other acts that are deemed inhumane.

In the aftermath of some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century, many states, human rights activists, and legal experts made a concerted effort to bring responsible parties to justice. While some trials, notably the Nuremburg Trials and trials involving perpetrators of war crimes in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, have resulted in successful prosecutions, bringing those responsible for crimes against humanity to justice remains an ongoing challenge.

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