Posted on June 4th, 2021


A WAR CRIME is an act that constitutes a serious violation of the laws of war. Serious violations of international humanitarian law constitute war crimes.” (ICRC Rule 156).  

There are several lists of war crimes. Here are the current lists.

(1) The Rome Statue of the International Criminal Court set up by the UN (1998, 2002) contains a long list of war crimes.  It is the most official of the lists. The list can be seen at

(2)The International committee of the Red Cross has also issued a list. (2005) it was prepared at the request of   the 26th International Conference of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva, in 1995.

 (3) The Statutes of the International Criminal Tribunals for Yugoslavia (1993) Rwanda, (1994)) and Sierra Leone (2002) also contain lists.


The list of war crimes in both ICRC and ICC are very long. Here are some of the war crimes taken from the ICRC list. (International Review of ICRC Volume 87 Number 857 March 2005). I have selected only those items which would be interest to Sri Lankan readers. Those who wish to look at the full list must go to the links given above.

Here is the selection:

Civilians must be protected during the war. Constant care must be taken to spare the civilian population in the conduct of military operations

  • The parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between civilians and combatants.
  • Attacks may only be directed against combatants.
  • Attacks must not be directed against civilians.
  • Civilians are protected against attack, unless and for such time as they take a direct part in hostilities.
  • Civilians must be removed from the vicinity of military objectives.
  • Acts for the purpose of spreading terror among the civilian population is prohibited.
  • The parties to the conflict must at all times distinguish between civilian objects and military objectives. Attacks may only be directed against military objectives. Attacks must not be directed against civilian objects.
  • Indiscriminate attacks are prohibited.
  • Launching an attack where loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, will be greater than military advantage expected, is prohibited.
  • The use of starvation of the civilian population as a method of warfare is prohibited.
  •  Torture, cruel or inhuman treatment and outrages upon personal dignity are prohibited.
  • Children, (i.e. those under the age of 15) must not be recruited into armed forces or armed groups.
  • The taking of hostages is prohibited.
  • Locating military objective within or near densely populated areas.
  • ‘Persons taking no active part in the hostilities must be treated humanely, at all time, without any discrimination.
  • Displaced persons have a right to voluntary return in safety to their homes or places of habitual residence as soon as the reasons for their displacement cease to exist. [
  • The e property rights of displaced persons must be respected. [IAC/NIAC

Other persons who are protectedas long as they are not taking a direct part in hostilities.

  • doctors
  • religious persons
  • Journalists engaged in professional missions in areas of armed conflict

Protected places are:

  • Hospitals
  •  zones established to shelter the wounded, the sick and civilians from the effects of hostilities
  •  non-defended locality

Strategies that are forbidden

  • Taking of hostages is prohibited.
  • The use of human shields is prohibited.
  • The improper use of the white flag of truce is prohibited such as using the flag as a ruse to mount an attack on enemy troops.
  • The use of chemical weapons is prohibited.
  • The use of chemical and biological weapons in warfare are also prohibited by numerous chemical arms control agreements and the Biological Weapons Convention.
  • Wearing enemy uniforms or civilian clothes to infiltrate enemy lines for espionage or sabotage missions is a legitimate ruse of war, though fighting in combat or assassinating individuals, even if they are military targets, behind enemy lines while so disguised is not, as it constitutes unlawful perfidy.
  •  using starvation of civilians as a method of warfare
  • Using prohibited weapons.
  • Destruction of property not required by military necessity. (scorched earth” policy).
  • Directing an attack against a demilitarized zone agreed upon between the parties to the conflict is prohibited.


  • Individuals are criminally responsible for war crimes they commit.
  • Commanders and other superiors are criminally responsible for war crimes committed pursuant to their orders.
  • Commanders and other superiors are criminally responsible for war crimes committed by their subordinates if they knew that the subordinates were about to commit or were committing such crimes and did not take all necessary and reasonable measures in their power to pre-vent their commission, or if such crimes had been committed, to punish the persons responsible.
  • Every combatant has a duty to disobey a manifestly unlawful order.
  • Obeying a superior order does not relieve a subordinate of criminal responsibility if the subordinate knew that the act ordered was unlawful or should have known because of the manifestly unlawful nature of the act ordered.
  • Commanders and other superiors can be held criminally responsible for grave breaches and other serious violations of humanitarian law committed pursuant to their orders.
  • They can also be held individually responsible for failing to take proper measures to prevent their subordinates from committing such violations, or failing to punish the persons responsible.  ( CONTINUED)

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