What Is a War Crime?

For nearly as long as there has been war, attempts have been made to govern its conduct. However, it took until the 20th century for the legal concept of a “war crime” to come into being. Thanks to an array of multilateral treaties, most notably the Geneva Conventions, military and political leaders can now be prosecuted when they commit atrocities ranging from torture to targeting civilians.

Even in antiquity, war was rarely waged completely without limits. Aristotle, for example, outlined his parameters for a “just war.” And, though fighting could be brutal among the Greek city-states, enemy soldiers customarily accorded each other a proper burial.