War Crimes and the
What are war crimes? Inhuman acts have been committed in all wars throughout human history. It has only been in the last 2 centuries that certain acts that were committed during war were found to be so reprehensible that they were labeled war crimes. Even thought these acts were committed during the "fog of war", they still merited punishment in a court of law in the eyes of the international community. When military and political leaders began to systematically target large civilian groups because of their nationality, ethnicity, gender or religion, then the international community began to see the necessity of holding political leaders accountable for their political decisions in a court of law, (Hauss, 2003).
After World War II, when the atrocities of the Holocaust became well known, the victorious Allied powers decided to hold war crimes tribunals to punish the political and military leaders of Germany and Japan. The Nuremberg and Tokyo trials were the first of their kind in establishing international precedent for the prosecution of war crimes. Later war crimes that were committed in Yugoslavia and Rwanda resulted in the creation of separate tribunals by the United Nations to punish the leaders who perpetrated these acts. Attempts are being made to set up an International Criminal Court, but several powerful countries, including the United States, have refused to support its establishment.
The history of war crimes tribunals only begins after World War II, when the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals were established. The Allied powers of World War I attempted to prosecute war crimes committed by the Axis powers, but no prosecutions by an international tribunal ever took place. A commission established after World War I in 1919 by the victorious powers sought the prosecution of enemy nationals, even leaders, guilty of offences against "the laws and customs of war or the laws of humanity," (Cassette, 2000). At the end of the war, both the Treaty of Sèvres (between the Allied powers and Turkey) and the Treaty of Versailles (the Allied powers and Germany) provided for the prosecution of central power war criminals (i.e. Turkish and German), including Kaiser Wilhelm II, before international tribunals. Although the idea of prosecutions by an international tribunal gained hold, no such prosecutions actually ever occurred. Kaiser Wilhelm was given sanctuary in the Netherlands, and only a few prosecutions of German war criminals by the German Supreme Court took place. War Crimes and the International Community
After World War II, the total defeat of the Axis powers created a historic opportunity for the establishment of the first international body for the prosecution of war criminals. Shocked by the extent and horrors of the atrocities committed by the Nazis and the Japanese and empowered by their status as victor nations, the Allies signed an agreement creating the International Military Tribunal (IMT) for the prosecution of major war criminals of the European Axis. This was soon followed in Japan by the establishment of a tribunal for the prosecution of high-ranking Japanese accused of war crimes.
These tribunals were given the authority by the Allied powers to prosecute German and Japanese leaders for "crimes against the peace" (the crime of waging an aggressive war), "crimes against humanity" and "war crimes" (of which the existence was debatable in international law at the time), (Beasley, 2009). The tribunals were not concerned with the prosecution of each and every enemy national responsible for committing war crimes, but only the major players — people responsible for planning and instigating aggressive war and atrocities committed during the war.