Difference Between War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity

Edited by Diffzy | Updated on: April 30, 2023


Difference Between War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity

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The scene of conflict is often distressing. On the home front, while playful and entertaining for a short period, your pets or siblings need to eventually be separated while they engage in a fight (physical or verbal). The separation is carried out much to your dismay by an authoritative figure like your parent and if you are the authoritative figure, then, well, the choice is up to you. In all likeliness, though, you will intervene and probably save lives by ordering a time-out or some other kind of punishment. If your pets or siblings are good children, they will obey your commands and make your life easy. But since most siblings and pets are simply wild at the core (a trait we secretly love), they will be at each other’s throats as soon as you turn your back. More time-outs.

It is a pity that on a larger scale a simple time-out cannot stop a fight. A battle or a war between two parties is not only distressing to the observers but is a horrible situation for everyone involved. It is a disheartening scenario that leads to immense loss and suffering. There are damages incurred in resources, power, time etc. most importantly, though, there are damages to the souls, hopes and health of the people.

War Crimes vs Crimes Against Humanity

When looking at war, we often hear about war crimes and crimes against humanity. These are two terms that are associated with wars and conflicts. They are both crimes committed in the act of war be it in a civil war or an interstate conflict. War crimes occur when the regulations put forth by international agreements are violated. Crimes against humanity are those acts that result in the degradation of human beings as a consequence of war. Let us see how else these terms differ from each other.

Differences Between War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity in a Tabular Form

Parameters of Comparison War Crimes Crimes Against Humanity
Definition War crimes are defined as serious violations of the customs of war as defined by international treaties or international customary laws. Crimes against humanity are the crimes committed in a large-scale context targeting civilians based on their religion, race, sex etc. 
Code War crimes were primarily derived from the Geneva Convention of 12th August 1949. The most recent codification is in Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). “Crimes against humanity” is codified in Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC).
Setting War crimes are committed in the setting of inter-state wars or civil wars. Crimes against humanity are committed not only in the context of war but also when there is aggression against humans for reasons like race or religion.
Perpetration War crimes are carried out by soldiers and army participants of any rank. Crimes against humanity are usually perpetrated by national or regional government officials.
Stigma The stigma for war crimes is comparatively less. The stigma attached to crimes against humanity is massive.
Context and scale War crimes take place on a large scale and in a broad context. Crimes against humanity target specific groups based on political agendas and biases.
Threshold Acts of aggression can be labelled as war crimes only when they reach a specific threshold. Acts of aggression against humans in any setting are considered crimes against humanity.
Examples An example of war crimes is ill-treatment, murder and deportation by the German and Japanese governments in World War II. An example of a crime against humanity is the Armenian Genocide. 

What are War Crimes?

In international law, a war crime is a serious violation of the customs of war as per the international laws and treaties that have been agreed upon. The usage of the term “war crimes” has seen constant evolution. It has particularly seen more significance since the end of World War I. the first attempt to explain the term was seen in the “Leiber Code” by the main author – Francis Lieber under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln during the American Civil War. The Lieber Code prohibited violence like rape, maiming and murder against the people in the invaded country. These crimes were punishable by death.

Following World War I, the Allied powers (Great Britain, the Russian Empire and France) convened and prepared a list of nine hundred war criminals and turned it over to Germany to give up the criminals. Germany, however, was reluctant to hand over its criminals to the Allied powers. A compromise was reached and the Allies allowed for the war criminals to be tried at the Supreme Court in Leipzig.

The next major attempt was following World War II. Through the course of the war, the Allied powers observed the atrocious criminal activities of the Axis powers and at the end of the war, the representatives of the United States, the United Kingdom, France and the Soviet Union signed the London Agreement. In this agreement, an international military tribunal was ordered to try the major Axis war criminals. This agreement was supported by 19 other governments and included the Nürnberg Charter. This charter gave forth the following categories of crimes – Crimes against peace (preparation and initiation of aggression), War crimes (ill-treatment, deportation and murder) and Crimes against humanity (racial, political or religious persecution of civilians).

Post-World War II, there have been various other conventions that have addressed and redefined war crimes. Four separate Geneva Conventions in 1949 made certain acts committed in the violence of the laws of war prosecutable. They also provided protection to the wounded, sick, prisoners of war, shipwrecked military personnel and civilians. The latest codification, though, can be found in article 8 of the Rome Statutes for the ICC.

War crimes need to be proven in the judicial court. The criminal acts include – acts such as murder, intentionally causing great suffering, injury to body or health, rape, pillage, and unlawful and arbitrary destruction of goods that are essential for the survival of the civilians. These are usually the results of an armed conflict. If proven in a judicial court, they would constitute war crimes per international humanitarian laws.

What are Crimes Against Humanity?

Crimes against humanity are considered an offence as per the aforementioned Nürnberg Charter. The definition of crimes against humanity has been codified in Article 7 of the Rome Statutes of the ICC. It states that crimes like murder, extermination, enslavement, torture, rape, persecution and all other inhumane acts (acts that cause great suffering and injury) if caused in a widespread systematic fashion with prior knowledge would constitute crimes against humanity.

These acts are often followed by the phrase – “shock the conscience of mankind.” Therefore, world poverty, man-made environmental disasters and terrorist attacks have also been categorized as crimes against humanity. The broad meaning of the term only stresses moral outrage and emphasizes the intention for these crimes to be recognized as legal offences.

The concept of crimes against humanity enforces the idea that the government officials responsible for making policies and agendas be held responsible for these crimes by the international community. Regional or government officials have the authority to pass regulations that could outlaw customs pertaining to certain religions. It could also invite other people to target the people adhering to these customs, thus instigating crimes against humanity.

Political and legal theorists have also challenged sovereignty. For some of them, a crime against humanity is simply being grossly inhuman. For others, it is a predetermined atrocious act to damage international peace. For others still, it is plain genocide at the core. “Crimes against humanity” were first addressed in relation to the Armenian Genocide (World War I) and the Holocaust (World War II), both the incidents that saw genocide. Genocidal attacks depending on the group membership lead to denying the victims their human status and are, thus, inhuman.

It has been found that there is a greater stigma attached to crimes against humanity when compared to war crimes. For example, many youngsters and middle-aged Germans, even today, regard the Holocaust with disbelief and shame even though it occurred years ago. War crimes, on the other hand, committed by armies during the same period, have since been forgotten.

Main Differences Between War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity In Points

Following are the main differences between war crimes and crimes against humanity:

  1. War crimes are defined as serious violations of international laws and treaties at the time of war, while crimes against humanity are crimes committed against humans that lead to their degradation.
  2. War crimes were primarily derived from the Geneva Convention of 1949 but the latest codification can be seen in Article 8 of the Rome Statute of the ICC. Crimes against humanity were codified in Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the ICC.
  3. War crimes are crimes committed in civil wars and inter-state wars, whereas crimes against humanity are crimes committed in any setting.
  4. War crimes are perpetrated by army participants and soldiers, while crimes against humanity are most often perpetrated by government officials or politicians.
  5. The stigma attached to war crimes is relatively less when compared to crimes against humanity.
  6. War crimes are considered as such when the crimes reach a certain threshold. This is not the case with crimes against humanity. Any act of aggression against civilians leading to their degradation is considered a crime against humanity.
  7. War crimes take place on a large scale and in a broader context when compared to crimes against humanity, which are more target-specific.
  8. An example of war crimes is deportation and murder committed by the Axis nations in the Second World War. An example of a crime against humanity is the Armenian Genocide.


War crimes and crimes against humanity are serious and horrible crimes that we have unfortunately witnessed. War crimes are open violations of the international treaties and laws that take place during the war. They are committed in the case of a civil war or an inter-state war. They were first defined in the Geneve Convention of 1949 but the most recent codification is in Article 8 of the Rome Statutes of the ICC. War crimes are perpetrated by armies and soldiers and take place on a large scale. The acts that constitute war crimes are rape, pillage and murder, to name a few.

In addition to the above-mentioned acts, crimes against humanity include enslavement, torture and genocide in the list. Crimes against humanity are any acts that lead to human degradation. They can be committed in any setting, not only in wars. The latest codification of crimes against humanity was in Article 7 of the Rome Statutes of the ICC. Crimes against humanity are mostly perpetrated by government officials and politicians. They are more target-specific and target civilians of a particular race, religion, political difference or gender. They also carry more stigma when compared to war crimes. Despite the various laws in place, we still see these acts take place, which is an abomination to humanity. It goes on to show that there are human monsters out there, who will stop at nothing to get their agenda across, no matter how cruel. Punishments and penalties do not matter to them. Even death does not matter to them. And innocent people are victims of their evil machinations. The situation is vastly unfair and devastating. As much as one would like to find a solution to the problem, the complexity of it makes it all the more convoluted. A simple time-out would never suffice. At least your siblings or pets have companionship and share a parent. You might witness hair pulls, scars, bite-marks, torn clothes and damaged articles (in both cases of siblings and pets). But they will eventually see reason and quit their quibbling in time. It might not be any time soon, but you sure will not have to worry about a war crime or a crime against humanity in their case. At least, that is my hope and should be your prayer.




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"Difference Between War Crimes and Crimes Against Humanity." Diffzy.com, 2024. Mon. 17 Jun. 2024. <https://www.diffzy.com/article/difference-between-war-crimes-and-crimes-against-505>.

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