This question is not related to any ongoing event, but, rather, is a hypothetical scenario.

Suppose country X invades country Y. While country X possess much advantage in power and dominance over country Y, country Y knows that its under a threat of permanent destruction and might cease to exist. Thus, country Y resorts to performing war crimes against country X on country Y's territory for the purpose of survival (such as use of internationally banned weapons, executions, psychological terror,...) in such a hypothetical scenario would the international community hold country Y accountable for war crimes and for breaking the Geneva protocol or is there some UN resolution that justifies country Y's action as self defense?

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    By definition, war crimes are not justifiable self-defense. Commented May 13, 2021 at 1:20
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    Alright thank you, but why the down vote? I never intended to have my question as opinion based
    – Kamola
    Commented May 13, 2021 at 1:40
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    @Kamola, hypotheticals can be perceived as partisan propaganda.
    – o.m.
    Commented May 13, 2021 at 6:08
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    I believe this question should not be closed as “internal motivations” or “could not be verified with sources available to the public” because it can be verified with the wording of international law and the past actions of international courts. This is shown by the current answer Commented May 13, 2021 at 12:32
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    1) On a relevance level, questions about war crimes are better suited to law.SE than politics.SE. 2) On a moral level, the world has too many clever rationalizations for war crimes already, and doesn’t need any more. 3) The question seems inappropriately elementary, like asking, “Can police officers’ use of excessive force to neutralize a criminal ever be justified?” Answer: no, because if it was justified, it wouldn’t be “excessive”. Commented May 13, 2021 at 14:33

4 Answers 4


The use of force by the military (to include properly organized insurgents) is measured by military necessity, distinction, and proportionality. An attack is illegal if

  • there is no military benefit to be gained,
  • civilians are targeted directly,
  • or civilian casualties are disproportionate to the military benefit.

That means not every attack which kills civilians is a war crime. It is legal to shell a barracks building, even if the technology of the time means there will be a few short or long shots hitting civilian housing. It is not a crime to mistake a refugee camp for an army base. It is a crime to target a refugee camp, knowing it is a refugee camp.

The standards in this regard have shifted. It was accepted during WWII that strategic aerial bombardment was imprecise. Bombers were hard-pressed to survive in daylight and hard-pressed to find their target at night. Today it is possible to use precision-guided munitions, and the indiscriminate bombardment of a city would no longer be acceptable.

If an attack is considered a war crime, even after taking the necessity and proportionality standards into account, then it is a war crime no matter what the strategic situation. For instance, any misuse the red cross is a war crime, no matter how bad your military situation.

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    You may never misuse the Red Cross without committing a war crime no matter how bad your situation Commented May 13, 2021 at 12:34
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    @EkadhSingh, I thought that was obvious from context, but I've edited it.
    – o.m.
    Commented May 13, 2021 at 13:34
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    What do you mean by misusing the red cross? Is it the symbol (like painting red crosses on ammo depot to avoid them being targeted) or the organisation itself?
    – Luris
    Commented May 13, 2021 at 19:01
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    So on that point, is it a crime to deliberately put an army base right next to a refugee camp such that any attempt to attack the army base will almost certainly result in collateral damage to the nearby refugee camp? Or to store munitions in a hospital, etc. (The proverbial Operation Human Shield) This is a tactic actually being used in some places, so it's relevant. Commented May 13, 2021 at 20:35
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    @DarrelHoffman, hiding munitions in a marked hospital would be abusing the red cross. But medics may be armed for self-defense and those weapons can be stored. It is complex.
    – o.m.
    Commented May 14, 2021 at 4:43

Unfortunately both the UNSC and ICC are subject to de-facto veto power of the leading major powers, making the legalities moot.

As a moral and ethical question, the answer is, by definition implicit in the phrasing of the title question, no.

As a practical question, the answer is and has always been yes, very sadly.

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    While this answer DOES answer the question, it provides neither explanation or sources.
    – CGCampbell
    Commented May 14, 2021 at 13:52
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    +1. The only question(s) you should ask are "Is this a moral thing to do? Does this take away peoples rights, such as life or property?" If so, don't do it. Commented May 14, 2021 at 17:12

Kind of yes.

All you need to argue is that the civilians are not really civilians, or that they didn't flee the combat zone fast enough after you gave sufficient warning.

"not really", "fast enough", and "sufficient" leave enough wiggle room that diplomacy can then turn a war crime into just another battle, or the other way around, depending on the available leverage on each side. Using that method you can even turn a war crime by one side "attacked civilians" into a war crime by the other "used civilians as shields".

Keep in mind, there is rarely a neutral body able to investigate the crime scene in a timely manner - if you're lucky you can get a neutral party to access the site within a few months. This gives the side that controls the ground on which the alleged crime occurred a massive advantage in arguing their case.


Your question is not precise enough. As far as I know, psychological terror is not a war crime under any definition.

Executions may be legal, and whether they are war crimes depends on whom you execute, with what prpose and in what circumstances, on whose territory etc.

Generally, killing civilians with the aim to terrorise them or get rid of unfriendly population is a war crime.

At the same time, destroying industry and infrastructure may be not a war crime.

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