Violations of laws of war are war crimes

Back in 1994, during the Rwandan Genocide, the Security Council embarrassed itself and made a mockery of international law when it decided to pass Resolution 918 on May 17, which stated, “Recalling in this context that the killing of members of an ethnic group with the intention of destroying such a group, in whole or in part, constitutes a crime punishable under international law.”

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If the language employed sounds familiar it’s because it is the exact definition of genocide found in the Genocide Convention: “In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group.” Yet, on behalf of the U.S. and others, the Security Council refused to use the term.

Today, this phenomenon is being repeated in the mainstream press and in a letter co-authored by ten leading human rights and civil rights organizations. Let's call this the Harry Potter effect. President Obama has allegedly committed the crime that must not be named.

For example, when The New York Times revealed on May 29, 2012 that President Obama counts all military-age males killed in a drone strike as combatants, the paper of record did not even raise the question of the policy’s legality. The article also refers to President Obama’s authorization of “signature strikes” in Pakistan and Yemen. So-called “signature strikes” target individuals not based in their actual identity, but rather based in behavioral characteristics. Again, the authors did not stop to question the legality of such an indiscriminate policy. In fact, the article did not once mention ‘international law’, the ‘laws of war’, or ‘international humanitarian law’. 

On April 11, 2013, ten human rights and civil rights organizations wrote to President Obama about their mutual concerns regarding his drones program and targeting killing operations. In the letter, these organizations repeatedly questioned whether the President was complying with the laws of war. For example, regarding the president’s corrupt method of counting civilian deaths caused by his targeted killing program, the letter stated, “In the context of armed conflict, a track record of undercounting civilian casualties may cause the United States to make an inaccurate assessment of the proportionality element of lethal action — itself a violation of the laws of war (also known as international humanitarian law).”

On President Obama’s use of “signature strikes” the letter stated, “In an armed conflict, individuals are entitled to a presumption of civilian status, which the practice of signature strikes may effectively deny, leading to direct attacks on civilians and disproportionate civilian casualties, in violation of international humanitarian law.”

The president’s counting method is a clear violation of the principle of distinction and could be a violation of the principle of proportionality depending on the actual number of civilians killed, as opposed to John Brennan’s ridiculous claim, one repeated by Dianne Feinstein during Brennan’s confirmation hearing, of single-digit innocent loss of life per year. The same is true of ‘signature strikes’. If you don’t know who the individuals are that you kill or whether they are actually engaged in hostilities, clearly, you are not distinguishing between civilians and combatants.

Not included in the letter sent to President Obama are the accusations that he has utilized ‘double-taps’, a horrendous practice more often associated with terrorists. ‘Double-taps’ refers to the practice of setting off an initial explosive, which is then soon followed by a second explosion aimed at maiming and killing first responders. The Obama administration has allegedly used this practice in the form of drone strikes. According to The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, there were more than a dozen such attacks between 2009 and 2011, resulting in the deaths of at least fifty civilians.


Just as the U.S. refused to use the ‘g-word’ during nearly the entire duration of the Rwandan Genocide, the mainstream press refuses to even use the language of international law and the ten human rights and civil rights organizations refused to give a name to the violations of international humanitarian law they describe. Perhaps, it would have been considered impolite.

I will state it clearly here. Violations of the laws of war are war crimes. If you have personally authorized the acts that violate the laws of war, you are a war criminal. 

During a June 10, 1994, briefing, after approximately half-a-million Rwandans had been killed, State Department spokesperson Christine Shelley refused to describe events in Rwanda as genocide, instead she would only refer to ‘acts of genocide’. In response, she was asked, "How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?" Perhaps, it’s time we ask, “How many violations of the laws of war does it take to make someone a war criminal?”

Bachman is a professorial lecturer in Human Rights at the School of International Service at American University.