Crimes against humanity are certain acts that are deliberately committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population or an identifiable part of a population. The first prosecution for crimes against humanity took place at the Nuremberg trials. Crimes against humanity have since been prosecuted by other international courts – such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Court, as well as in domestic prosecutions. The law of crimes against humanity has primarily developed through the evolution of customary international law. Crimes against humanity are not codified in an international convention, although there is currently an international effort to establish such a treaty, led by the Crimes Against Humanity Initiative.
- History of the term
- Abolition of the slave trade
- First use
- Nuremberg trials
- Tokyo trials
- Types of crimes against humanity
- Rape and sexual violence
- Legal status of crimes against humanity in international law
- United Nations
- Security Council
- International courts and criminal tribunals
- International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia
- International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda
- International Criminal Court
- Council of Europe
Unlike war crimes, crimes against humanity can be committed during peace or war. They are not isolated or sporadic events, but are part either of a government policy (although the perpetrators need not identify themselves with this policy) or of a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority. Murder, massacres, dehumanization, genocide, human experimentation, extrajudicial punishments, death squads, forced disappearances, military use of children, kidnappings, unjust imprisonment, slavery, cannibalism, torture, rape, and political or racial repression may reach the threshold of crimes against humanity if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice.
History of the term
The term "crimes against humanity" is potentially ambiguous because of the ambiguity of the word "humanity", which can mean humankind (all human beings collectively) or the value of humanness. The history of the term shows that the latter sense is intended.
Abolition of the slave trade
There were several bilateral treaties in 1814 that foreshadowed the multilateral treaty of Final Act of the Congress of Vienna (1815) that used wording expressing condemnation of the slave trade using moral language. For example, the Treaty of Paris (1814) between Britain and France included the wording "principles of natural justice"; and the British and United States plenipotentiaries stated in the Treaty of Ghent (1814) that the slave trade violated the "principles of humanity and justice".
The multilateral Declaration of the Powers, on the Abolition of the Slave Trade, of 8 February 1815 (Which also formed ACT, No. XV. of the Final Act of the Congress of Vienna of the same year) included in its first sentence the concept of the "principles of humanity and universal morality" as justification for ending a trade that was "odious in its continuance".
The term "crimes against humanity" was used by George Washington Williams, in a pamphlet published in 1890, to describe the practices of Belgian King Leopold II's administration of the Congo. In treaty law, the term originated in the Second Hague Convention of 1899 preamble and was expanded in the Fourth Hague Convention of 1907 preamble and their respective regulations, which were concerned with the codification of new rules of international humanitarian law. The preamble of the two Conventions referenced the “laws of humanity” as an expression of underlying inarticulated humanistic values. The term is part of what is known as the Martens Clause.
On May 24, 1915, the Allied Powers, Britain, France, and Russia, jointly issued a statement explicitly charging for the first time ever another government of committing "a crime against humanity". An excerpt from this joint statement reads:
In view of these new crimes of Ottoman Empire against humanity and civilization, the Allied Governments announce publicly to the Sublime Porte that they will hold personally responsible for these crimes all members of the Ottoman Government, as well as those of their agents who are implicated in such massacres.
At the conclusion of the war, an international war crimes commission recommended the creation of a tribunal to try "violations of the laws of humanity". However, the US representative objected to references to "law of humanity" as being imprecise and insufficiently developed at that time and the concept was not pursued.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, the London Charter of the International Military Tribunal was the decree that set down the laws and procedures by which the post-War Nuremberg trials were to be conducted. The drafters of this document were faced with the problem of how to respond to the Holocaust and grave crimes committed by the Nazi regime. A traditional understanding of war crimes gave no provision for crimes committed by a power on its own citizens. Therefore, Article 6 of the Charter was drafted to include not only traditional war crimes and crimes against peace, but in paragraph 6 (c) Crimes Against Humanity, defined as
Murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war, or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.
In the Judgment of the International Military Tribunal for the Trial of German Major War Criminals it was also stated:
The Tribunal therefore cannot make a general declaration that the acts before 1939 were crimes against humanity within the meaning of the Charter, but from the beginning of the war in 1939 war crimes were committed on a vast scale, which were also crimes against humanity; and insofar as the inhumane acts charged in the Indictment, and committed after the beginning of the war, did not constitute war crimes, they were all committed in execution of, or in connection with, the aggressive war, and therefore constituted crimes against humanity.
The International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE), also known as the Tokyo Trial, was convened to try the leaders of the Empire of Japan for three types of crimes: "Class A" (crimes against peace), "Class B" (war crimes), and "Class C" (crimes against humanity), committed during the Second World War.
The legal basis for the trial was established by the Charter of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (CIMTFE) that was proclaimed on 19 January 1946. The tribunal convened on May 3, 1946, and was adjourned on November 12, 1948.
In the Tokyo Trial, Crimes against Humanity (Class C) was not applied for any suspect. This was because the values of lives of Asian civilians were considered to be worth less than the lives of Caucasian or Jewish civilians. Prosecutions related to the Nanking Massacre were categorised as infringements upon the Laws of War.
War crimes charges against more junior personnel were dealt with separately, in other cities throughout Far East Asia, such as the Nanjing War Crimes Tribunal and the Khabarovsk War Crimes Trials.
A panel of eleven judges presided over the IMTFE, one each from victorious Allied powers (United States, Republic of China, Soviet Union, United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Provisional Government of the French Republic, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, British India, and the Philippines).
Types of crimes against humanity
The different types of crimes which may constitute crimes against humanity differs between definitions both internationally and on the domestic level. Isolated inhumane acts of a certain nature committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack may instead constitute grave infringements of human rights, or – depending on the circumstances – war crimes, but are not classified as crimes against humanity.
The systematic persecution of one racial group by another, such as occurred during the South African apartheid government, was recognized as a crime against humanity by the United Nations General Assembly in 1976. The Charter of the United Nations (Article 13, 14, 15) makes actions of the General Assembly advisory to the Security Council. In regard to apartheid in particular, the UN General Assembly has not made any findings, nor have apartheid-related trials for crimes against humanity been conducted.
Rape and sexual violence
Neither the Nuremberg or Tokyo Charters contained an explicit provision recognizing sexual and gender-based crimes as war crimes or crimes against humanity, although Control Council Law No. 10 recognized rape as a crime against humanity. The statutes of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda both included rape as a crime against humanity. The ICC is the first international instrument expressly to include various forms of sexual and gender-based crimes – including rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilisation, and other forms of sexual violence – as both an underlying act of crimes against humanity and war crime committed in international and/or non-international armed conflicts.
In 2008, the U.N. Security Council adopted resolution 1820, which noted that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide”.
Legal status of crimes against humanity in international law
Unlike genocide and war crimes, which have been widely recognized and prohibited in international criminal law since the establishment of the Nuremberg principles, there has never been a comprehensive convention on crimes against humanity, even though such crimes are continuously perpetrated worldwide in numerous conflicts and crises. There are eleven international texts defining crimes against humanity, but they all differ slightly as to their definition of that crime and its legal elements.
In 2008, the Crimes Against Humanity Initiative was launched to address this gap in international law. The Initiative represents the first concerted effort to address the gap that exists in international criminal law by enumerating a comprehensive international convention on crimes against humanity.
On July 30, 2013, the United Nations International Law Commission voted to include the topic of crimes against humanity in its long-term program of work. In July 2014, the Commission moved this topic to its active programme of work based largely on a report submitted by Sean D. Murphy. Professor Sean D. Murphy, the United States’ Member on the United Nations’ International Law Commission, has been named the Special Rapporteur for Crimes Against Humanity. Sean D. Murphy attended the 2008 Experts' Meeting held by the Crimes Against Humanity Initiative prior to this appointment.
There is some debate on what the status of crimes against humanity under customary international law is. M. Cherif Bassiouni argues that crimes against humanity are part of jus cogens and as such constitute a non-derogable rule of international law.
The United Nations has been primarily responsible for the prosecution of crimes against humanity since it was chartered in 1948.
After Nuremberg, there was no international court with jurisdiction over crimes against humanity for almost 50 years. Work continued on developing the definition of crimes against humanity at the United Nations, however. In 1947, the International Law Commission was charged by the United Nations General Assembly with the formulation of the principles of international law recognized and reinforced in the Nuremberg Charter and judgment, and with drafting a ‘code of offenses against the peace and security of mankind’. Completed fifty years later in 1996, the Draft Code defined crimes against humanity as various inhumane acts, i.e., "murder, extermination, torture, enslavement, persecution on political, racial, religious or ethnic grounds, institutionalized discrimination, arbitrary deportation or forcible transfer of population, arbitrary imprisonment, rape, enforced prostitution and other inhuman acts committed in a systematic manner or on a large scale and instigated or directed by a Government or by any organization or group." This definition differs from the one used in Nuremberg, where the criminal acts were to have been committed “before or during the war”, thus establishing a nexus between crimes against humanity and armed conflict.
A report on the 2008–09 Gaza War by Richard Goldstone accused Palestinian and Israeli forces of possibly committing a crime against humanity. In 2011, Goldstone said that he no longer believed that Israeli forces had targeted civilians or committed a crime against humanity.
On 21 March 2013, at its 22nd session, the United Nations Human Rights Council established the Commission of Inquiry on human rights in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). The Commission is mandated to investigate the systematic, widespread and grave violations of human rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, with a view to ensuring full accountability, in particular for violations which may amount to crimes against humanity. The Commission dealt with matters relating to crimes against humanity on the basis of definitions set out by customary international criminal law and in the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. The 2014 Report by the commission found "the body of testimony and other information it received establishes that crimes against humanity have been committed in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, pursuant to policies established at the highest level of the State... These crimes against humanity entail extermination, murder, enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, forced abortions and other sexual violence, persecution on political, religious, racial and gender grounds, the forcible transfer of populations, the enforced disappearance of persons and the inhumane act of knowingly causing prolonged starvation. The commission further finds that crimes against humanity are ongoing in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea because the policies, institutions and patterns of impunity that lie at their heart remain in place." Additionally, the commission found that crimes against humanity have been committed against starving populations, particularly during the 1990s, and are being committed against persons from other countries who were systematically abducted or denied repatriation, in order to gain labour and other skills for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
UN Security Council Resolution 1674, adopted by the United Nations Security Council on 28 April 2006, "reaffirms the provisions of paragraphs 138 and 139 of the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document regarding the responsibility to protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity". The resolution commits the Council to action to protect civilians in armed conflict.
In 2008 the U.N. Security Council adopted resolution 1820, which noted that “rape and other forms of sexual violence can constitute war crimes, crimes against humanity or a constitutive act with respect to genocide”.
International courts and criminal tribunals
After the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials of 1945-1946, the next international tribunal with jurisdiction over crimes against humanity was not established for another five decades. In response to atrocities committed in the 1990s, multiple ad hoc tribunals were established with jurisdiction over crimes against humanity. The statutes of the International Criminal Court, the International Criminal Tribunals for the Former Yugolavia and for Rwanda each contain different definitions of crimes against humanity.
International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia
In 1993, the UN Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), with jurisdiction to investigate and prosecute three international crimes which had taken place in the former Yugoslavia: genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Article 5 of the ICTY Statute states that
The International Tribunal shall have the power to prosecute persons responsible for the following crimes when committed in armed conflict, whether international or internal in character, and directed against any civilian population:(a) murder; (b) extermination; (c) enslavement; (d) deportation; (e) imprisonment; (f) torture; (g) rape; (h) persecutions on political, racial and religious grounds; (i) other inhumane acts."
This definition of crimes against humanity revived the original ‘Nuremberg’ nexus with armed conflict, connecting crimes against humanity to both international and non-international armed conflict. It also expanded the list of criminal acts used in Nuremberg to include imprisonment, torture and rape. Cherif Bassiouni has argued that this definition was necessary as the conflict in the former Yugoslavia was considered to be a conflict of both an international and non-international nature. Therefore, this adjusted definition of crimes against humanity was necessary to afford the tribunal jurisdiction over this crime.
International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda
The UN Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in 1994 following the Rwandan Genocide. Under the ICTR Statute, the link between crimes against humanity and an armed conflict of any kind was dropped. Rather, the requirement was added that the inhumane acts must be part of a “systematic or widespread attack against any civilian population on national, political, ethnic, racial or religious grounds.” Unlike the conflict in the former Yugoslavia, the conflict in Rwanda was deemed to be non-international, so crimes against humanity would likely not have been applicable if the nexus to armed conflict had been maintained.
International Criminal Court
In 2002, the International Criminal Court (ICC) was established in The Hague (Netherlands) and the Rome Statute provides for the ICC to have jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The definition of what is a "crime against humanity" for ICC proceedings has significantly broadened from its original legal definition or that used by the UN. Essentially, the Rome Statute employs the same definition of crimes against humanity that the ICTR Statute does, minus the requirement that the attack was carried out ‘on national, political, ethnic, racial or religious grounds’. In addition, the Rome Statute definition offers the most expansive list of specific criminal acts that may constitute crimes against humanity to date.
Article 7 of the treaty stated that:
For the purpose of this Statute, "crime against humanity" means any of the following acts when committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population, with knowledge of the attack:(a) Murder; (b) Extermination; (c) Enslavement; (d) Deportation or forcible transfer of population; (e) Imprisonment or other severe deprivation of physical liberty in violation of fundamental rules of international law; (f) Torture; (g) Rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization, or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity; (h) Persecution against any identifiable group or collectivity on political, racial, national, ethnic, cultural, religious, gender as defined in paragraph 3, or other grounds that are universally recognized as impermissible under international law, in connection with any act referred to in this paragraph or any crime within the jurisdiction of the Court; (i) Enforced disappearance of persons; (j) The crime of apartheid; (k) Other inhumane acts of a similar character intentionally causing great suffering, or serious injury to body or to mental or physical health;
The Rome Statute Explanatory Memorandum states that crimes against humanity
are particularly odious offenses in that they constitute a serious attack on human dignity or grave humiliation or a degradation of one or more human beings. They are not isolated or sporadic events, but are part either of a government policy (although the perpetrators need not identify themselves with this policy) or of a wide practice of atrocities tolerated or condoned by a government or a de facto authority. However, murder, extermination, torture, rape, political, racial, or religious persecution and other inhumane acts reach the threshold of crimes against humanity only if they are part of a widespread or systematic practice. Isolated inhumane acts of this nature may constitute grave infringements of human rights, or depending on the circumstances, war crimes, but may fall short of meriting the stigma attaching to the category of crimes under discussion. On the other hand, an individual may be guilty of crimes against humanity even if he perpetrates one or two of the offences mentioned above, or engages in one such offense against only a few civilians, provided those offenses are part of a consistent pattern of misbehavior by a number of persons linked to that offender (for example, because they engage in armed action on the same side or because they are parties to a common plan or for any similar reason.) Consequently when one or more individuals are not accused of planning or carrying out a policy of inhumanity, but simply of perpetrating specific atrocities or vicious acts, in order to determine whether the necessary threshold is met one should use the following test: one ought to look at these atrocities or acts in their context and verify whether they may be regarded as part of an overall policy or a consistent pattern of an inhumanity, or whether they instead constitute isolated or sporadic acts of cruelty and wickedness.
To fall under the Rome Statute, a crime against humanity which is defined in Article 7.1 must be "part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population". Article 7.2.a states "For the purpose of paragraph 1: "Attack directed against any civilian population means a course of conduct involving the multiple commission of acts referred to in paragraph 1 against any civilian population, pursuant to or in furtherance of a State or organizational policy to commit such attack." This means that an individual crime on its own, or even a number of such crimes, would not fall under the Rome Statute unless they were the result of a State policy or an organizational policy. This was confirmed by Luis Moreno Ocampo in an open letter publishing his conclusions about allegations of crimes committed during the invasion of Iraq in March 2003 which might fall under the ICC. In a section entitled "Allegations concerning Genocide and Crimes against Humanity" he states that "the available information provided no reasonable indicator of the required elements for a crime against humanity," i.e. 'a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population'".
The ICC can only prosecute crimes against humanity in situations under which it has jurisdiction. The ICC only has jurisdiction over crimes contained in its statute - genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity - which have been committed on the territory of a State party to the Rome Statute, when a non-party State refers a situation within its country to the court or when the United Nation Security Council refers a case to the ICC. In 2005 the UN referred to the ICC the situation in Darfur. This referral resulted in an indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in 2008. When the ICC President reported to the UN regarding its progress handling these crimes against humanity case, Judge Phillipe Kirsch said "The Court does not have the power to arrest these persons. That is the responsibility of States and other actors. Without arrests, there can be no trials.
Council of Europe
The Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe on 30 April 2002 issued a recommendation to the member states, on the protection of women against violence. In the section "Additional measures concerning violence in conflict and post-conflict situations", states in paragraph 69 that member states should: "penalize rape, sexual slavery, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity as an intolerable violation of human rights, as crimes against humanity and, when committed in the context of an armed conflict, as war crimes;"
In the Explanatory Memorandum on this recommendation when considering paragraph 69:
Reference should be made to the Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal adopted in Rome in July 1998. Article 7 of the Statute defines rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization or any other form of sexual violence of comparable gravity, as crimes against humanity. Furthermore, Article 8 of the Statute defines rape, sexual slavery, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization or any other form of sexual violence as a serious breach of the Geneva Conventions and as war crimes.
The Holodomor has been recognized as a crime against humanity by the European Parliament.