Rule 151. Individuals are criminally responsible for war crimes they commit.
State practice establishes this rule as a norm of customary international law applicable in both international and non-international armed conflicts.
The principle of individual criminal responsibility for war crimes is a long-standing rule of customary international law already recognized in the Lieber Code and the Oxford Manual and repeated in many treaties of international humanitarian law since then.
Individual criminal responsibility for war crimes committed in international armed conflicts was the basis for prosecutions under the Charters of the International Military Tribunals at Nuremberg and at Tokyo, as it is under the Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the Statute of the International Criminal Court.
Numerous military manuals specify that individuals are criminally responsible for war crimes.
The principle of individual criminal responsibility for war crimes is implemented in the legislation of numerous States.
Many suspected war criminals have been tried on the basis of this principle.
This rule is also supported by official statements and reported practice.
The principle has also been recalled in numerous resolutions of the UN Security Council, UN General Assembly and UN Commission on Human Rights.
It has also been recalled on many occasions by other international organizations.
With respect to non-international armed conflicts, significant developments took place from the early 1990s onwards. Individual criminal responsibility for war crimes committed in non-international armed conflicts has been explicitly included in three recent international humanitarian law treaties, namely Amended Protocol II to the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons, the Statute of the International Criminal Court and the Second Protocol to the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property.
It is implicitly recognized in two other recent treaties, namely the Ottawa Convention banning anti-personnel landmines and the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, which require States to criminalize prohibited behaviour, including in non-international armed conflicts.
The Statutes of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and of the Special Court for Sierra Leone explicitly provide that individuals are criminally responsible for war crimes committed in non-international armed conflicts.
Numerous States have adopted legislation criminalizing war crimes committed in non-international armed conflicts, most of it in the past decade.
It is likely that more will follow, in particular States adopting implementing legislation for ratification of the Statute of the International Criminal Court and wishing to take advantage of its complementarity principle. Several individuals have been tried by national courts for war crimes committed during non-international armed conflicts.
There have also been many official statements since the early 1990s in national and international fora regarding individual criminal responsibility in non-international armed conflicts.
Practice of international organizations has also, since the early 1990s, confirmed the criminality of serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in non-international armed conflicts. The UN Security Council, UN General Assembly and UN Commission on Human Rights have recalled the principle of individual criminal responsibility for war crimes committed in non-international armed conflicts, for example, in Afghanistan, Angola, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Burundi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia and the former Yugoslavia.
Similar statements were also made by the European Union in relation to Rwanda in 1994 and by the Organization of African Unity in relation to Liberia in 1996.
The trials by the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda of persons accused of war crimes committed in non-international armed conflicts confirm that persons are criminally responsible for those crimes. Of particular interest in this regard is the analysis of the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Tadić case
in 1995, in which it concluded that there was individual criminal responsibility for war crimes committed in non-international armed conflicts.
Individuals are not only criminally responsible for committing a war crime, but also for attempting to commit a war crime, as well as for assisting in, facilitating, aiding or abetting the commission of a war crime. They are also responsible for planning or instigating the commission of a war crime.
It should be noted that recent practice favours the award of reparations to victims of war crimes. This is most noticeable in Article 75(2) of the Statute of the International Criminal Court concerning “Reparations to victims”, which gives the Court the power to “make an order directly against a convicted person specifying appropriate reparations to, or in respect of, victims, including restitution, compensation and rehabilitation”.
UNTAET Regulation No. 2000/30 for East Timor gives the Court, i.e., the competent panels within the District Court in Dili and the Court of Appeal in Dili, the power “to include in its disposition an order that requires the accused to pay compensation or reparations to the victim”.
This goes further than the powers of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda whose Statutes only give them the power to “order the return of any property and proceeds acquired by criminal conduct, including by means of duress, to their rightful owner”.
The Rules of Procedure and Evidence of the Tribunals state, however, that “pursuant to the relevant national legislation, a victim or persons claiming through the victim may bring an action in a national court or other competent body to obtain compensation”.
In a report on the causes of conflict and the promotion of durable peace and sustainable development in Africa, the UN Secretary-General recommended that “combatants be held financially liable to their victims under international law where civilians are made the deliberate target of aggression” in order to make warring parties more accountable for their actions.
In a report on human rights in Rwanda, the Special Representative of the UN Commission on Human Rights for Rwanda noted that “those convicted of crimes against property will be expected to pay restitution for the damage they caused” during the gacaca
trials instituted in Rwanda to try genocide suspects.
Under the domestic legislation of many States, victims can also bring claims before civil courts, and there are some examples of such suits being successfully brought.
In addition, some States provide in their national law for the possibility for courts in criminal matters to order reparation, including restitution of property, for victims of war crimes.