WHAT IS A CRIME AGAINST HUMANITY?
Crimes against humanity are an important topic of world history and of particular significance in the 20th and 21st centuries. The topic of crimes against humanity is also closely linked with the concepts of ‘genocide’ and ‘war crimes’ since these also generally occur alongside crimes against humanity.
The term ‘crimes against humanity’ is considered to be when a group of people are subjected to humiliation, suffering and death on a mass scale by another group. Crimes against humanity and war crimes are often confused with one another, however crimes against humanity are attacks against a civilian population that can occur in either times of peace or times of war. Whereas a war crime is when a civilian population is attacked in times of war, that goes beyond what is considered acceptable. There have been many significant crimes against humanity throughout history, such as the following conflicts from the 20th century: Armenian Genocide, Holodomor, Nanking Massacre, Holocaust, Cambodian Genocide, Bosnian Genocide and the Rwanda Genocide. While the term ‘crime against humanity’ can be linked to earlier events in human history such as the Atlantic Slave Trade, it is most often associated with modern (20th century) conflicts. For instance, the first use of the term ‘crime against humanity’ was in 1890 by George Washington Williams in reference to the actions of Leopold II of Belgium in the then Congo Free State. However, the United Nations first used the term in 1948 in reference to the earlier Armenian Genocide and then recent Holocaust.
TYPES OF CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY
The International Criminal Court (ICC) was established in 2002 in The Hague, Netherlands. In general, the ICC seeks justice in claims related to genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. The ICC was created at a Conference in Rome in 1998 and the treaty that was agreed upon at the time is now called the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court. Not only did the Rome Statute create the ICC but it also laid out the framework for how the ICC was structured and its jurisdiction over the crimes listed above. Also important to the Rome Statue, was the creation of a list of different types of crimes against humanity, which included the following:
- Deportation or Forced Migration of a Group of People
- Rape, Sexual Slavery, Forced Pregnancy or Forced Sterilization
- Persecution Against a Group Based on Politics, Race, Nation, Ethnicity, Culture, Religion or Gender
- Forced Disappearance of People
- Other Acts Causing Suffering or Serious Physical or Mental Injury
CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY AND THE UNITED NATIONS
The creation of the United Nations is important to the history of crimes against humanity, as it was essentially created to help prevent or stop mass killings (along with wars), which had been more common in the early 20th century.
As stated above, there have been many significant crimes against humanity in history. However, the Holocaust is likely the most significant crime against humanity of the 20th century and eventually led to the recognition of crimes against humanity as a distinct topic of study. For instance, the major events of the Holocaust occurred throughout the 1930s and 1940s during the reign of the Nazi Party in Germany. The Nazi Party, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, systematically killed 11 million people in the Holocaust including as many as 6 million Jewish people. The Holocaust ended in 1945 with the defeat of Nazi Germany in World War II by the Allied countries. As a result of the events of the Holocaust and World War II, countries of the world united to establish the United Nations in 1945. For example, the United Nations was created with the goal of preventing wars, genocide, crimes against humanity and other major conflicts. The creation of the United Nation is important to the history of crimes against humanity, because it was the first time that perpetrators were held accountable for their actions. For example, the first instance of this was the Nuremberg Trials following the events of the Holocaust and World War II.
HOLDING PERPETRATORS OF CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY ACCOUNTABLE
During World War II, the Allied powers met several times to discuss post-war Europe and how to bring the Nazis to justice. For example, three significant conferences were held including: the Tehran Conference in 1943 and the Yalta Conference and Potsdam Conference in 1945. In general, the leaders initially disagreed on how to carry out justice. Winston Churchill of Britain and Joseph Stalin of the Soviet Union favored summary executions, meaning the officials would be killed without a trial. Whereas, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and later Harry S. Truman, were in favor of a formal trial to ensure the collection and presentation of evidence in order to prove guilt. Eventually, the other leaders agreed with the American approach and the nations set out to establish the system of trials. The trials were established in the German city of Nuremberg after the conclusion of World War II.
The Nuremberg Trials began on November 19th, 1945 with indictments against twenty four captured Nazis and different Nazi organizations, including: Nazi leadership, the SS, the Gestapo, and the SA. The first charge was that the Nazis participated in a conspiracy to wage war and end the peace following World War I. The second charge was that the German leadership planned and carried our wars of aggression. The third charge was for war crimes and the fourth charge was for carrying out crimes against humanity. Of the twenty four Nazis tried at the Nuremberg Trials only five were found not guilty. The other nineteen were convicted and either sentenced to prison terms, including life in prison, or given a death sentence.
The Nuremberg Trials were a significant because they were the first such ‘international’ trial and established a model for future trials. As well, the Nuremberg Trials helped establish a renewed interest in human rights issues. For instance, the United Nations was established with the goal of preventing similar future conflicts. Furthermore, the United Nations created the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 with the goal of restoring faith in basic human rights and to avoid future related war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocides.
Alongside the Nuremberg Trials also occurred the International Military Tribunal of the Far East. In August of 1945, following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan formally surrendered and World War II came to an end. With the end of the war, there was a series of criminal trials carried out to hold war criminals responsible for their actions. While the most famous of these trials was the Nuremberg Trials, the International Military Tribunal of the Far East was also important. In relation to the Nanking Massacre, Japanese officials were brought before the International Military Tribunal of the Far East. For example, General Iwane Matsui who led the attack against Nanking was arrested and put on trial for his role in the massacre. In general, he denied knowing about the murders and rapes and blamed it on the actions of lower level commanders. Regardless, he was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging, a lot with other Japanese officials. He was executed on December 23rd, 1948 at the age of 70. Click here to read more detailed information above the main events of the Nanking Massacre.
Following the Nuremberg Trials and the International Military Tribunal of the Far East, the concept of holding perpetrators of crimes against humanity accountable was again important in the late 20th century. For example, there were similar courts and tribunals held for modern genocides, such as: Cambodian Genocide, Bosnian Genocide (Former Yugoslavia), and Rwandan Genocide. For example, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established by the United Nations in May of 1993 in order to prosecute the perpetrators of the genocide. The ICTY was located in The Hague, Netherlands and was tasked with judging the following during the Bosnian War: customs of war, genocide, crimes against humanity. The maximum sentence it could impose was life imprisonment. In total, the ICTY oversaw the trials of 111 people and dissolved as an organization in December of 2017. Also, In November of 1994, the United Nations created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). It was established as a means of holding the perpetrators of the Rwandan Genocide accountable for their actions during the massacre. The court was located in Tanzania and oversaw trials centered around genocide and crimes against humanity. In all it oversaw 50 trials which led to the convictions of 29 people deemed responsible for the genocide. The ICTR was dissolved in 2015 having completed its mandate. Furthermore, in 2001, the Cambodian government established the Khmer Rouge Tribunals for the purpose of trying leaders of the Khmer Rouge during the Cambodian Genocide. It was a national court established by the Cambodian government but supported by the United Nations with some international lawyers and judges. The full name for the tribunals was ‘Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia’ or ECCC.
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