General William Tecumseh Sherman, famed Union leader during the American Civil War, is credited with uttering the timeless phrase, "War is hell." Indeed, the realities of war are oftentimes indescribable, horrific, and impossible to comprehend unless we've experienced it first-hand on the battlefield. Yet even in the heat of war, there are certain actions which are universally considered both beyond the realm of human decency and criminal.
Here you’ll find a summary look at U.S. federal war crimes, including how war crimes are defined, who can be prosecuted, and what to do if you're charged with a federal criminal offense.
War Crimes and International Law
War can break out among hostile factions when they fail to enact sensible solutions -- it's never a "good" thing. Still, there's a global realization of the need to protect innocent people from the atrocities of war as evidenced during the Geneva Conventions. In fact, one of the most famous international examples of successful war crime prosecutions occurred during the notable Nuremberg trials where 12 Nazis were sentenced to death in relation to their actions during the Holocaust.
While the U.S. doesn't formally submit their citizens to the International Criminal Court, the international court which was set up to prosecute war crimes (the U.S. is strictly an "observer"), the U.S. has adopted the Geneva Conventions which are now part of U.S. law and it does prosecute war crimes in its own courts and courts martial. These prosecutions are based on the Geneva Conventions and other federal laws designed to criminalize certain actions considered mistreatment of prisoners of war or civilians.
What Constitutes a "War Crime?"
The War Crimes Act, codified in 18 U.S.C. § 2441, criminalizes specific acts known as "grave breaches" from Common Article 3 of the Geneva Convention. Grave breaches are defined as acts committed against persons or property protected by the Convention such as "willful killing, torture or inhuman treatment." This also includes biological experiments, willfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health.
The War Crimes Act was amended in 2009 to limit the scope of coverage to specific acts or attempts, including:
- Cruel treatment;
- Performing of biological experiments;
- Mutilation or maiming;
- Intentionally causing serious bodily injury;
- Rape and sexual assault or abuse; and
- Taking of hostages.
While each of the above-mentioned crimes have specific meanings, it is best to seek the advice of a federal lawyer to learn more about each action as defined by this law.
Prosecution, Time Limits, and Penalties
These offenses can be prosecuted against a person whether they occur inside or outside the United States and have absolutely no statute of limitations if there is a charge of taking human life involved, meaning that a person who is alleged to have committed murder under this statute can be charged now or 20 years from now, or even longer. Otherwise, the general statute of limitations is five years from the date of the incident.
Additionally, these cases carry the most severe penalties, including life imprisonment or the death penalty (only if the conduct resulted in the death of one or more victims).
War Crimes: Related Resources
Charged with War Crimes or Other Federal Crimes? Get Legal Help
You may not be charged with something as perilous as a war crimes violation, but you might be charged with a federal crime and will surely need legal assistance. While knowing the laws and what charges are being brought against you is half the battle, having a strong advocate on your side can make all the difference between an acquittal and conviction. Learn more about your legal options by contacting an experienced criminal defense attorney in your area today.