Joe Biden has accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of being a “war criminal.” But what does this mean? What is a war crime”? And what makes someone a war criminal? Let’s talk about this on today’s episode of Thinking in English!
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Off-the-cuff (phrase) – if you speak off the cuff, you say something without having prepared or thought about your words first
I hadn’t prepared a speech so I just said a few words off the cuff
Rhetoric (n) – speech or writing intended to be effective and influence people
I was influenced by her rhetoric into donating to the charity
To commit (v) – to do something illegal or something that is considered wrong
He was sent to prison for a crime he didn’t commit
Humanity (n) – understanding and kindness towards other people
He displayed no humanity to his opponent
To ratify (v) – (especially of government or organisations) to make an agreement official
Many countries have now ratified the UN convention on the rights of the child
To prohibit (v) – to officially refuse to allow something
Cars are prohibited from driving in the town centre
To prosecute (v) – to officially accuse someone of committing a crime in a court
He was prosecuted for fraud
Tribunal (n) – a special court who are officially chosen to examine problems of a particular type
She took her case to an immigration tribunal
Explicitly (adv) – in a way that is clear and exact
The law explicitly prohibits stealing
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Last week, US President Joe Biden described Vladimir Putin as a “war criminal” due to the Russian army’s actions in Ukraine. After days of avoiding using such harsh language, Biden first used the term “war criminal” in an off-the-cuff reply to a reporter’s question. In response, the Kremlin described Biden’s words as “unforgiveable rhetoric.”
At first, this might not seem like an overly significant move – Russia and the US are constantly insulting and accusing each other of multiple different wrongdoings. But the phrases “war criminal” and “war crimes” are actually very serious and influential terms.
The US President’s advisors and aides have been quick to state that it is not an official US policy that Putin is a war criminal – instead they say that Biden was speaking from the heart after seeing images of the violence in Ukraine. There are separate processes and investigations by countries and organisations around the world that will determine whether or not Putin or his soldiers are committing war crimes during their war.
However, Biden’s use of the words “war criminal” is incredibly significant and influential. Even if it is not official US policy yet, it is going to make it difficult for Russia and the US to work together in the future – after all, how can you work with a criminal?
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But, just before I go on with the episode, I want to quickly talk about my recent episodes. This episode is influenced by Russia’s war in Ukraine – just like my previous episodes on nuclear weapons and oligarchies. It is sad that I need to talk about these topics, but I think it is essential for English learners to have both the vocabulary and knowledge to properly understand what is happening in the war.
So much of the information, commentary, and news is produced in English at the moment, but organisations tend to assume everyone already understands the words and concepts they are talking about. One of the reasons I started Thinking in English was to help English learners develop the skills to talk, read, and think about such complicated issues in English.
I’ve seen countless examples of people using the terms “war crimes” or “war criminals” over the past few weeks – but very few people actually truly understand what it means to be a “war criminal” or how we can prove someone is such a criminal. Just like the episode on oligarchy last week, I think understanding the concept takes more time than just looking in the dictionary.
What is a “War Crime”?
I’ve used the terms ‘war crimes’ and ‘war criminal’ a lot already in this episode. And, if you look on social media or read online articles, saying that Russia is committing ‘war crimes’ has become incredibly common. However, most people tend to use this vocabulary without actually understanding what they are saying. There are clear and set definitions and processes that we use to determine “war crimes” and to punish those who commit them!
So, what is a “war crime”? And who is a “war criminal”? And how do we decide or determine whether or not someone has committed “war crimes”?
The Rules of War
This might surprise some of you, but even wars have rules. Over the years, countries have come together to establish and write laws and guidelines that set out what you can, and cannot, do during a war or conflict. A “war criminal” is someone who breaks and violates such rules.
These rules of war, also known as international humanitarian law, are famously found in the Geneva Conventions, as well as other international laws and agreements. The purpose of the “rules of war” is to save lives, reduce suffering, and keep some humanity even in times of conflict.
Wars aim to weaken the enemy – usually by gaining land, overthrowing a government, and destroying resources and infrastructure. Unfortunately, one of the consequences of war is death. International humanitarian law is designed to try and balance the need to weaken an enemy during war with the desire to limit suffering.
The rules of law are not just something university professors have written. The core part of International Humanitarian Law is the Geneva conventions – and every single country in the world has ratified and approved the Geneva Conventions. In other words, every single country has agreed to follow the rules of law.
They are universal. The rules of law don’t just apply to countries or national governments, but anyone fighting in a conflict – armies, political parties, militias, mercenaries, and armed civilians. Everyone must follow the rules of law.
What are the rules of war?
When you study international human rights and humanitarian law, the specific rules of war can become quite complex and detailed. However, I’ll introduce a few of the most important parts of international humanitarian law. So, what are the rules of war?
You must protect people who are not fighting in the war. This includes civilians (normal people not part of an army), medical workers, or aid workers. You must also protect people who are not able to fight anymore. If an enemy soldier is injured or taken prisoner, they should be protected.
You must not target civilians. Armies should attack other armies, soldiers, or military facilities, not civilians and the things they use. This means, if possible, people’s homes should not be damaged, and things like water, crops, and animals should be left alone.
Medical facilities, hospitals, and medical vehicles can not be attacked. This is the case even if they are treating injured soldiers, as injured individuals all have the right to medical care – no matter which side they are fighting for.
Torture and the poor treatment of prisoners is illegal and banned. If an enemy soldier is captured, they must be treated fairly and not abused. They must be given food and water and allowed to contact their families.
Certain weapons and tactics must be limited to avoid too much suffering. Some of the most famous illegal weapons include poisonous gases, biological weapons, plastic weapons (as x ray machines can’t find pieces of plastic in a body), land mines, lasers that cause blindness, and cluster bombs. These kinds of weapons are designed to cause suffering and can hurt many people, rather than just defeat the enemy.
And the rules of war clearly prohibit rape and other types of sexual violence from being used by armed forces as a tactic of war.
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What Happens if you Break the Rules of Law?
If you break the rules of law, you can and often will be punished. War crimes have consequences, and are investigated both by States and international courts. Individuals, not just countries, can be prosecuted and put on trial for committing war crimes. There are generally four possible ways that war crimes are investigated and determined.
First, the International Criminal Court (or ICC) has the responsibility to investigate and prosecute individuals who are suspected of committing war crimes. It is an intergovernmental organisation and is not part of the UN. Especially if the individual is not being charged by an individual country, the ICC can take charge of the investigation. The ICC is based in The Hague and is already investigating Russian war crimes.
It is important to realise, however, that there are limitations to the ICC. The court doesn’t have a police force – they can issue arrest warrants but rely on states to arrest suspects. Russia is not a member of the ICC (they left in 2016) so they would never arrest any of their own citizens for the ICC. Even if arrest warrants are issued, if the suspects stay in Russia or other countries that are not members of the ICC, they will not be on trial. And before you assume that only dictatorships and violent countries don’t join the ICC – the US never joined.
The second way to investigate war crimes is through an international war crimes tribunal supported by the United Nations. The UN has the International Court of Justice which is designed to solve disputes between countries. They can also set up war crimes tribunals, such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. This tribunal was part of the UN (unlike the ICC) and temporary: it was formed just to investigate war crimes during the Yugoslav wars.
Third, a tribunal could also be set up by a different group of countries. As not all UN countries would support investigating Russian citizens (most obviously Russia themselves would object to it) an organisation like NATO or the EU, or just a group of countries, could perhaps set up a court to investigate war crimes. In fact, the most famous war crime court in history was this kind of organisation.
The Nuremberg trials was set up by the UK, US, France, and Soviet Union to investigate, document, and punish Nazi war crimes after the defeat of Germany in WW2. A similar trial was also held in Tokyo to investigate Japanese war crimes.
Finally, an individual country can also investigate war crimes. Some countries have their own laws that allow them to investigate and prosecute war crimes. For example, Germany is already investigating Putin.
Have National Leaders Ever Been Prosecuted for War Crimes?
It is much easier to charge an individual soldier with war crimes, than it is to investigate the leader who ordered such crimes. Often, it is difficult to prove that a national leader explicitly commanded his army to commit such crimes.
To counter this problem, the ICC can also investigate the war crime of “waging aggressive war.” This means that rather than acting in self-defence, a war, conflict, or invasion was unjustified and aggressive: just for self benefit. This was the main focus of the Nuremberg trials after WW2.
And national leaders have been prosecuted for war crimes in the past. As I already mentioned, the political and military leaders of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan were tried after WW2.
More recently, tribunals have dealt with war crimes in Bosnia, Rwanda, and Cambodia amongst other countries. The former leader of Yugoslavia, Slobodan Milosevich was put on trial by a UN tribunal for his role in the terrible conflicts that occurred following the collapse of Yugoslavia. He died before a verdict was reached. Bosnian Serbs Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic were also investigated for war crimes by an international tribunal and are now serving life sentences.
Other leaders have also been prosecuted. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor was sentenced to 50 years in prison for funding human rights abuses in neighbouring country Sierra Leone. And an African court sentenced the former dictator of Chad, Hissene Habre, to life in prison for crimes against humanity.
This episode of Thinking in English has tried to explain the concept of “war crimes.” I talked a little about the origins of the rules of law, talked about what countries can’t do in conflict, and also discussed how someone can be punished for committing “war crimes.”
I’m sure you are all expecting me to comment on whether Russia is committing war crimes and whether Putin is a war criminal. There have clearly been civilians killed in Ukraine, hospitals deliberately destroyed, evacuation convoys shot at, and Russia is suspected of using illegal weapons. But, I honestly think it is better to leave such investigations to the international courts, tribunals, and national criminal systems.
The real issue will begin after the war. If Putin, or any other Russian, is charged with war crimes, how can you prosecute them? Where would the trial take place? Getting any Russian leader to a country that could arrest them would be almost impossible. Already, many of Russia’s richest oligarchs have left Europe and are trying to reach countries that will not join in with any criminal investigation.
After listening to this episode, what do you think? Is Russia committing war crimes in Ukraine? Is Putin a “war criminal”? What should happen to Russia, and the leaders, if they are found guilty of war crimes?
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