Explained: What Is A War Crime?

Boris Johnson has accused Putin of committing war crimes in Ukraine — but what does this mean?
Handout . via Reuters

Boris Johnson has accused Vladimir Putin of having already committed a war crime in Ukraine.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) then opened an investigation on Wednesday night after Britain and 37 allies referred Russia over what the prime minister described as “abhorrent” attacks.

But what is a war crime?

There is no single document that codifies it simply. However the United Nations points to the Geneva Conventions negotiated in 1949, which have been ratified by all UN member states.

Under these rules, the below are considered to be war crimes in international conflicts:

  • Wilful killing
  • Torture or inhuman treatment, including biological experiments;
  • Wilfully causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or health;
  • Extensive destruction and appropriation of property, not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly;
  • Compelling a prisoner of war or other protected person to serve in the forces of a hostile power;
  • Wilfully depriving a prisoner of war or other protected person of the rights of fair and regular trial
  • Unlawful deportation or transfer or unlawful confinement;
  • Taking of hostages.

More broadly, intentional attacks against civilians or civilian targets would also be seen to be war crimes.

As is using weapons which are “of a nature to cause superfluous injury or unnecessary suffering or which are inherently indiscriminate”.

Russia has been accused of using cluster bombs during its assault.

It has also deployed thermobaric “vacuum bombs” which suck in oxygen to create a devastating, high temperature blast.

Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, said Putin was “targeting civilians indiscriminately and tearing through towns across Ukraine”.

It is also a war crime to transfer, directly or indirectly, by the occupying power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.

Speaking at PMQs on Wednesday, Johnson accused Russia of an “abhorrent assault” on Ukraine.

“What we have seen already from Vladimir Putin’s regime in the use of the munitions that they have already been dropping on innocent civilians, in my view, already fully qualifies as a war crime,” he said.

More than 2,000 civilians have died since the invasion, Ukraine’s state emergency service said, although that figure has not been independently verified.

The UN refugee agency says 1 million people have fled Ukraine since the invasion, in the swiftest exodus of refugees this century.


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