Countries go to war. This country overtly declares war on that country, or this country carries out a non-over campaign against that one. When there is a state of war and there is fighting between the sides, people are killed.
Sometimes they are known as casualties of war, but on occasion what happens takes on an added level of horror. When this happens, we will hear of atrocities and we will learn of war crimes.
From a legal perspective, war crimes are of particular interest because we do not accuse a country we accuse certain individuals and if found guilty, it is the individual who suffers the penalties. What makes these crimes different, why they demand our attention is because they are crimes offensive to the human conscience, (which begs the question whose conscience?)
Since the end of the Second World War these crimes again human conscience have been codified, agreed upon, refined, developed to include things we never thought of before, and ignored in many places across the world.
Those who fought in the First World War thought there could never be another. It was only a matter of years before there was a second. After the Holocaust, few would have believed anyone would be bold enough to attempt genocide, yet the Rohingyan crisis of 2018 proves it not to be the case. Few would have predicted the possibility after Rwanda – all of us were wrong.
How does something of this scale become personal?
In some ways it is easy; Adolf Hitler was the leader of the Nazi Party and the Fürher in the years the Holocaust took place. He was the cause of the policy, it was for want of a better way to put it on his watch. But at the end of the war, he had already taken his life and was not available for trial. Nevertheless, as late as 2017 we were still asking ourselves is it too late to try a 98-year old man of atrocities committed at least 70 years ago.
Certainly for those who remain, the 30% of the Tutsi population left in Rwanda and the remaining Rohingya, we can understand if they feel vindicated in wanting their torturers to face justice if only to underscore crimes against human conscience will not be tolerated.
After the event
One of the inherent problems with crime and punishment is that it is always after the event. In (simple) criminal cases, A takes B’s life. A is caught and there is sufficient evidence to prosecute. A is tried, hopefully before a jury, and found to be guilty. A just court passes a sentence on A. All well and good. But, B is still dead.
When we look at that structure in the context of war crimes, we are discussing a wrong on a massive scale and whether we think it should or not the scale does make a difference.
Dealing with war crimes is, therefore, a fraught exercise. Easy to get wrong, but so necessary.