Legal concepts and questions

What are serious international crimes?

Serious international crimes include war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and other serious violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

For more information on violations of international human rights law and international humanitarian law, see the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the International Committee of the Red Cross.

What is genocide?

Genocide is committing acts such as killing, rape or other types of serious physical or mental harm committed with the intention of partially or completely destroying a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

The crime of genocide does not require a plan or policy, though the existence of either may be evidence of the intent to destroy the group. There is no minimum number of victims, but the part of the group targeted must be significant enough that its destruction would impact the group as a whole.

For more detailed information, see the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the International Criminal Court’s Elements of Crimes.

What are war crimes?

War crimes are serious violations of the international rules of war, such as seriously mistreating captured enemy soldiers or killing, raping, torturing or deporting civilians during an armed conflict.

International rules of war law are based on fundamental principles to save lives and reduce suffering, including by prohibiting military actions that may cause excessive injury, death or damage in relation to the anticipated military advantage; distinguishing between combatants and civilians; and avoiding or minimizing harm to the civilian population. An act that violates these principles is a war crime.

War crimes can be committed against civilians, civilian property and combatants, including those no longer directly involved in fighting.

For more detailed information, see the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and the International Criminal Court’s Elements of Crimes.

What are crimes against humanity?

Crimes against humanity include murder, torture, persecution, rape and other sexual and gender-based crimes, deportation and forcible transfer, or other crimes committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack against any civilian population.

The geographical scale, time frame and number of people targeted help determine if an attack is widespread. An attack is systematic if it involves acts of violence that were organized and did not occur randomly, such as security forces acting in a coordinated manner across the country.

For more detailed information see Article 7 of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court and  the International Criminal Court’s Elements of Crimes.

What is the crime against humanity of imprisonment?

The crime of imprisonment involves arbitrarily depriving a person of their liberty without following due process as recognized in international law.

Mere suspicion is not a lawful basis to justify the deprivation of liberty. Similarly, an individual cannot be detained because they are a political activist, a family member or an associate of a political activist, or affiliated with a certain religion, nationality or ethnicity.

What is the crime against humanity of enforced disappearance?

The crime of enforced disappearance involves arresting, detaining or abducting a person, and then refusing to say where they are or what happened to them, so that they are removed from the protection of the law for a long period of time.

This crime is carried out by a state or an organization with state-like powers, or with their authorization and support. An initially lawful arrest or detention of a person can turn into an enforced disappearance if information of their whereabouts is withheld.

What is the crime against humanity of torture?

The crime of torture involves inflicting severe mental or physical pain or suffering on a person – such as by raping them, beating them, depriving them of food or sleep and threatening to kill their relatives.

This does not have to result in permanent harm, but must cause more than temporary unhappiness, humiliation or embarrassment.

Definitions of the crime of torture vary depending on the jurisdiction. For example, the International Criminal Court requires that the victim must be in the custody or under the control of the alleged torturer. In other international courts, the severe pain or suffering must be carried out in order to attain a certain result or purpose, such as obtaining information or a confession.

What are the crimes of deportation and forcible transfer?

Forcing people, by expulsion or other coercive acts, to leave a place where they are living lawfully for reasons not allowed by international law could be a crime against humanity, a war crime or both.

When people are displaced across an international border, it is called deportation. When displacement occurs within a national boundary, it is called forcible transfer. Forced displacement does not require physical force and can be caused by threat or coercion.

What are sexual and gender-based crimes?

Sexual crimes include rape, sexual slavery, forced marriage, enforced prostitution, forced pregnancy, enforced sterilization or any other equally serious form of sexual violence.

These crimes also include conduct carried out in a sexualized manner and of comparable gravity, such as forced nudity, unwanted or coerced touching or contact, forcing a person to commit or watch an act of sexual violence, and violence to a victim’s genitals.

Gender-based crimes include persecution or torture committed against a person because of their sex or socially constructed gender roles. These crimes do not always involve sexual violence.

Women, men, girls, boys or people with diverse gender identities can all be victims of sexual and gender-based crimes.

What are crimes against children?

Children, defined as those under 18, are widely affected by all types of international crimes, including killings, torture, sexual and gender-based crimes, deportation and persecution.

Crimes against children include forcibly transferring children from one national, ethnic, racial or religious group to another group; trafficking children; conscripting, enlisting or using child soldiers; and attacking schools and hospitals.

Is it a serious international crime for armed forces or groups to recruit or use children in armed conflict?

The recruitment of a person under the age of 15 by armed forces or groups, or using them to participate actively in hostilities, is a war crime. This also applies when a person seeks to join an armed force or group voluntarily.

A person is considered to be actively participating in hostilities not only when they are armed and engaged in combat action, but also when they gather intelligence information about opposing forces, convey orders or transport military items.

Commanders are liable for this crime when they are sure that someone under their command is under 15, as well as when they ‘should have known’ this to be the case. Physical appearance can be sufficient for a commander to consider that a person is under 15.

Is the execution of suspected informers a serious international crime?

Civilians, or those who are not members of the armed forces or armed groups, may not be targeted for attack except while they are engaged in a specific act that constitutes direct participation in hostilities, according to the international law of armed conflict.

Although procuring or providing military information about the other side could in certain circumstances constitute direct participation, a person could only be targeted while engaged in that specific act. Civilians may not be targeted as a form of punishment for past acts of direct participation, nor to prevent future acts.

Mere suspicion is not enough. Any doubt about whether a person is directly participating in hostilities must be resolved in favour of the civilian. Anyone captured and detained for engaging in such activities may not be simply executed.

Are the death sentences carried out by the junta in July 2022 considered crimes against humanity?

While capital punishment is not itself a serious international crime, imposing a death sentence on the basis of proceedings that do not satisfy the basic requirements of a fair trial can amount to a crime against humanity when committed as a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population.

There are strong indications that the executions of four individuals in July 2022 were without due process, as the proceedings lacked transparency and virtually no information has been made available regarding the charges and evidence.

The secrecy of the proceedings is a violation of one of the most basic principles of a fair trial and casts doubt on whether any of the other fair trial guarantees had been respected, such as the requirement that a tribunal be impartial and independent.