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With the Israel-Gaza tension going on, I hear a lot of talk about "war crimes" by the UN. However, to me the war going on doesn't seem different at all from any other war, and leaves me to wonder how a "war crime" is defined by international law.

What makes an act of war a "war crime?"

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    The main principles of fair war have been defined in Geneva Conventions of 1949. They specifically list what actions are considered fair and what are war crime. There are other documents that also define other types of war crimes (e.g. definition of genocide etc). I vote this question to be closed/too broad since it requests for a list of actions. For instance, if you asked, would [a specific action] be a war crime? — that would be a good question. – bytebuster Aug 1 '14 at 1:19
  • @bytebuster Well that's a partial answer right there. And it's not really a list of actions, but rather an overview of what types of actions would be crimes. – Shahar Aug 1 '14 at 1:49
  • Asking for an "overview" is specifically a very bad sign. See Good Subjective, Bad Subjective for details why. Consider narrowing down your question to salvage it. I showed just one way how to do that, but there are also many others. – bytebuster Aug 1 '14 at 2:24
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    @Bytebuster - I think this question is acceptable. If it was asking what people think they should be it would the type of list question that is prohibited. This is asking how it is defined and what they are. As you can see by phillips answer it is not over broad. – SoylentGray Aug 1 '14 at 13:08
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The most common definition of what is and what is not acceptable in an armed conflict is The Hague Conventions of 1899 and 1907. It was later ammended by the Geneva Conventions.

It is a document much too long to sumarize completely. Here are just some examples of acts it forbids:

  • intentionally targeting civilians, their property or civilian infrastructure which has no military value
  • using civilians to protect military targets
  • mistreating prisoners of war
  • dressing troops as civilians
  • using insignias of the enemy or of humanitarian organisations
  • Attacking medics
  • Having medics attack the enemy
  • using weapons designed to cause unnecessary suffering or weapons of mass destruction
  • ...and many more...

However, in the 21st century where armed conflicts happen less between states but more between states and paramilitary organisations, the applicability of these conventions became disputed. The United States military, for example, ignores several conventions in its war on terror (like not mistreating prisoners of war) stating that their enemy is not an organized state army, so the conventions do not apply.

The conventions also include many clauses which say that when the enemy violates the conventions, it is acceptable to also violate them. That means, for example, when a medic is carrying a rifle, enemy troops may fire at that medic, because he would not have been issued one when he wasn't supposed to use it. Or when the enemy intentionally uses civilians to protect military targets so that it can not be attacked without endangering civilians, killing the civilians together with that target is not considered a warcrime. This specific situation is explained in greater detail in the question "Does international regulation forbid a country to kill children in a conflict if the other part uses them as human shields?".

  • The fact that the USA chose to ignore many conventions, doesn't mean they have the right to do so. The UN, Red Cross, Amnesty and others have pointed out these violations - and made it clear they are violations... Of course, USA being the 1000 pond gorilla, can hardly be forced into following something as "insignificant" as Intertanional laws and treaties. – Baard Kopperud Aug 1 '14 at 9:22
  • Old News... According to the the Geneva Convention 4th Protocol, article 28: "The presence of a protected person (ie. "protecting" it or "being used as human shield") may not be used to render certain points or areas immune from military operations.". However, that does not retract from the attacker's duty to make sure the damage to civilian life and property remain as low as possible, to way the danger of civilian loss agianst military gain, nor the duty to concider alternative ways of attacking (that will be less dangerous to civilians). – Baard Kopperud Aug 1 '14 at 9:38
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    "not mistreating prisoners of war" - actually, US prisoners of war are treated far more humanely than most prisoners of war by most other countries in 20th century. But this is a good answer otherwise. – user4012 Aug 2 '14 at 22:32
  • Is it illegal under the convention for medics to be armed, or is it illegal for medics to be armed while using the Red Cross? – cpast Aug 4 '14 at 13:57

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