Like famous English writer George Orwell once said, “War is a way of shattering to pieces… materials which might otherwise be used to make the masses too comfortable and… too intelligent”. Although war is itself an evil thing, even war has some rules. War crime as a dictionary definition means “any of various crimes, such as genocide or the mistreatment of prisoners of war, committed during a war and considered in violation of the conventions of warfare”. War crimes include “violations of established protections of the laws of war such as the mistreatment of prisoners of war or civilians, but also include failures to adhere to norms of procedure and rules of battle, such as attacking those displaying a flag of truce, or using that same flag as a ruse of war to mount an attack”. In order to prevent war crimes especially after the terrible events of the Second World War, many international organizations and institutions including international humanitarian law, International Criminal Court, European Court of Justice etc were established. These institutions are independent, not connected with any country and founded to protect justice and peace throughout the world. They try to find a solution to the detrimental impacts of wars like the violation of international agreements, ill-treatment of war prisoners and civilians as well as crimes against the human rights. This assignment is an attempt to make a study on war crimes. It will be argued that war crimes cannot be justified and they are great evils to humanity which should be punished severely.
The concept of “war crimes” is not very old. Before the Second World War, it was a common sense that the savageries of war are in the nature of the war. However, during the Second World War the murder of six million Jewish people -known as the Holocaust- by Nazi Germany and the crimes that are committed by other countries like the mistreatment of both civilians and prisoners of war by the Japanese Army, became an incentive for allied countries to prosecute people who they believed as criminal. “SS leaders referred to the killing of Jews euphemistically as special treatment. At first they murdered only those who were unfit for work, but in the spring of 1942 they extended the principle to all Jews in Eastern Europe” (Lyons, p. 142). So, allied forces under the supervision of new global super power -USA-, set up “Nuremberg Trials” in order to punish Nazi officials who are responsible of Jewish genocide. The trials were held in the city of Nuremberg, Germany from 1945 to 1949, at the Nuremberg Palace of Justice. Important names of the Nazi Party such as Karl Dönitz, Herman Göring, Rudolf Hess, Alfred Jodl, Joachim Von Ribbentrop, Albert Speer and Franz Von Pappen were put on trial in front of a jury consisted of allied power prosecutors. These people and many others were given harsh punishments because of their terrible deeds during the Second World War. Because of all its savageries and ugly deeds, people who are responsible of the Second World War were extremely guilty and it was not hard to declare them as war criminals.
However, it is not always so easy to determine what a war crime really is. For example, the displacement of civilians who make sabotage against their own army may not be considered as a war crime. During the World War I, the Armenians who had lived peacefully under the sovereignty of Ottoman Empire until that time, joined secretly to allied countries in accordance with the partition plan of the “sick man of Europe”, which is the Ottoman Empire. As a result of these events, in order to ensure the security of public and military, hundred thousands of Armenians were forced to move to safer areas with the assistance of Turkish laws. This forced migration that took place in 1915 and led to tragic events afterwards is called as tehcir in Turkish and it is frequently used against Turkey to accept so-called “Armenian genocide”. Although war and nearly everything related to war is ugly, in my opinion in the Armenian case, it must be understood that Ottoman Army did not order a genocide but for security reasons had to force Ottoman Armenians to migrate. It must not be forgotten that at this very same year (1915), Ottoman State sent thousands of Turkish-Muslim soldiers to Sarıkamış to fight against Russian Army unprepared and without taking into consideration terrible climate conditions of Eastern Anatolia. Eventually, thousands of Turkish soldiers died because of climate conditions without even engaging in war. This event -called as “Sarıkamış incident”- clearly shows that the tragic deeds of the 1915 was not only towards Armenians but also towards Turks, and this was caused by a decaying state’s inability to plan and provide services for displacement of its citizens or soldiers. Thus, although during this forced migration, terrible clashes emerged between Armenian and Kurdish-Turkish people and hundred thousands of Armenians were massacred by local tribes, this would not mean the Turkish State ordered genocide towards its Armenian citizens. That is why; this was not a war crime but rather a tragedy that took place as a consequence of rising ethnic nationalism and separatist movements in a decaying state. Moreover, a country should not be blamed and put on trial because of an ancien regime. If we have to accuse countries for their previous regimes, all European countries and even United States must be put on trial because of their deeds against Native Americans starting from 16th century. This shows us clearly that the limits of war crimes must be defined carefully and not all the deeds of war should be labeled as war crimes.
Another controversial war crime claim is related to the American aggression during the Cold War and afterwards. According to Ramsey Clark, in order to succeed with ease, U.S. missiles in the Gulf War destroyed facilities like hospitals and energy centrals first, which have vital importance to Iraqi people besides their strategic values. Clark thinks that “bombing of Iraq’s cities and infrastructure had nothing to do with driving Iraq from Kuwait”, which was the official pretext of the war (Clark, p. 59). But contrary to Clark’s criticism, under the Geneva Conventions, devastating a country’s power stations, bridges and roads are not included to the definition of war crimes if they are used for military purposes. But still, how can we accept from a humanitarian perspective exploding a country’s hospitals where civilians take medical help as in the case of Operation Desert Storm? These are clear evidences that even the most ardent advocates of preventing war crimes could engage in war crimes and the definition and scope of war crimes should be carefully drawn.
Starting from the Second World War, there has been a visible effort to cope with war crimes problem. Nuremberg principles, which were derived from Nuremberg Trials, constitute the basis of war crimes conception. There were seven important articles related to Nuremberg principles such as the principle 1 stating that “Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefore and liable to punishment”, principle 2 claiming that “The fact that internal law does not impose a penalty for an act which constitutes a crime under international law does not relieve the person who committed the act from responsibility under international law” and principle 3 expressing that “The fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law acted as Head of State or responsible government official does not relieve him from responsibility under international law”. The mentality guiding these principles was that “an individual can be held responsible for the actions of a country or that nation’s soldiers” and an individual has chance not to obey to the orders that are against humanity. So, the fourth Geneva Convention was held on 12 August 1949 in order to substantiate the laws that would protect “civilians during times of war in the hands of an enemy and under any occupation by a foreign power”. In parallel with these principles and laws, International Tribunals were established after all important wars in order to detect and punish war criminals. Finally, in the year 2002 The International Criminal Court (ICC) was established as a permanent tribunal to “prosecute individuals for genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, as defined by several international agreements, most prominently the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court”. There are some other international institutions that deal with war crimes, such as the International Court of Justice and the European Court of Justice. All these institutions work for abolishing wars and war crimes from our world. The statutes of the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague (ICTY) defines crimes against humanity as “crimes committed in armed conflict but directed against a civilian population” and makes a list of war crimes:
- Persecutions on political, racial and religious grounds
War crimes’ consequences are very dangerous. Since wars create a hostile environment, many cruel things can happen during a war. The murder of six million people in gas rooms, prisons, concentration camps by Nazis in the Second World War because of their Jewish identity shows us how dangerous can war crimes become. As far as I am concerned, war crimes cannot and should not be justified. Struggling against war crimes at least could reduce the level of violence during wars. Without these laws wars would easily turn into ethnic cleansings, genocides and attacks on civilians. Punishing war crimes will also mean that all sides would be much more careful when using biological or chemical weapons since they will know for sure that they will be punished for this kind of acts. War crimes taking place in Syria (after making a detailed research about who used chemical weapons) must be brought to an International Court after the end of civil war in Syria.
Assist. Prof. Dr. Ozan ÖRMECİ
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