Designating certain acts as “crimes against humanity” can help protect populations, especially civilians, from the worst violations of human rights and dignity. This category encompasses the most egregious acts of individuals, governments, and organizations. The discussion of what are crimes against humanity (and how to punish their perpetrators) began in earnest when the atrocities of World War II came to light.
What Are Crimes Against Humanity: Definitions and History
The first accepted use of the term “crimes against humanity” in an international forum is the 1945 Charter of the International Military Tribunal (also known as the Nuremberg Charter). This document memorialized the Allied countries’ agreement that certain acts of violence are unacceptable and established an international tribunal to prosecute individuals who commit them. France, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States signed the charter at the end of the Second World War; 20 other countries have since ratified it. It inspired the formation of numerous subsequent international courts to prosecute human rights violations, including the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
There is some disagreement when it comes to identifying specifically what is a crime against humanity, because there is no comprehensive, globally-accepted international legal definition. Acceptance of which specific acts constitute crimes against humanity has changed over the years as new horrifying examples come to light. According to the United Nations, the 1998 Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court expresses the most currently accepted list.
Are Crimes Against Humanity Different than War Crimes?
In addition to explaining what are crimes against humanity, the Nuremberg charter also identifies what are war crimes and what are crimes against peace. Under this and other accepted authorities, war crimes are distinguishable from crimes against humanity in four significant ways. These are:
- Designating something as a war crime is only appropriate if the act was committed during an armed conflict. Crimes against humanity, on the other hand, can be committed at any time.
- War crimes target the people of another nation or state. Crimes against humanity can (and often do) target a country’s own citizens.
- Crimes against humanity refers specifically to crimes against civilians, while both civilians and enemy combatants can be the victims of war crimes.
- A crime against humanity must be part of a widespread or systematic attack on a civilian population; a war crime can be an isolated act.
Based on these factors, while most offenses that qualify as crimes against humanity could also be war crimes, the converse is not necessarily true.
Generally Accepted Acts that Constitute Crimes Against Humanity
Many acts are widely accepted as crimes against humanity by many different international authorities. Some of the most fundamental include:
Murder and Extermination
Murder and the extermination of a demographic group are universally acknowledged as crimes against humanity when directed by the state. These terms refer to a ruler or government killing members of its own population, usually on a mass scale. In many cases, victims are targeted for extermination based on ethnic discrimination, religious prejudice, or cultural reasons (‘genocide‘) or political opposition (‘politicide’).
Deportation and Forced Transfer
Deporting or forcibly transferring a segment of the civilian population against that population’s will is generally accepted as a crime against humanity. The use of mass deportations is usually only one aspect of a broader attack against a particular group, often performed in conjunction with other crimes against humanity like persecution, apartheid, and extermination.
False Imprisonment, Torture, and Disappearance
In many cases, a state that perpetrates crimes against humanity resorts to tactics such as false imprisonment, deprivation and torture, and forced disappearances. False imprisonment constitutes holding individuals against their will based on fraudulent, trumped-up, or no charges. While imprisoned, they may be physically and mentally tortured, subjected to hard labor, or exiled to remote labor camps. These practices are illegal under international law and violate human rights protections.
Rape and Sexual Slavery
Sexual violations like rape, human trafficking, and sexual slavery have long been recognized as crimes against humanity. Such crimes are often carried out against civilians and can be directed against specific ethnic groups. In addition to being an egregious violation of human dignity, sexual violence can be a tool used to humiliate and demoralize segments of the population.
In addition to the above offenses, many others are commonly considered to be crimes against humanity, including apartheid, forced sterilization, persecutions based on ethnic, religious, or political grounds, and enslavement. In many cases, an oppressive regime commits many different overlapping humanitarian violations.
How Are Crimes Against Humanity Punished?
Although there have been agreements between countries for many centuries dealing with war crimes, before the end of World War II, there was no significant international cooperation to prosecute humanitarian violations during peacetime. As a result, many heads of state committed terrible atrocities against their own populations. These went unpunished; in many cases, they were often entirely unnoticed by outsiders.
In the modern era, many states, human rights activists, and legal experts are making a concerted effort to bring the individuals responsible for international human rights violations to justice. While some trials have resulted in successful prosecutions, such as those related to atrocities in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, bringing perpetrators to justice remains an ongoing challenge. Agreeing what are crimes against humanity and bolstering the authority of the International Criminal Court are two important parts of that objective.