War, like any other human endeavor throughout history, has historically had rules. The invasion of Ukraine by Russia and the actions of its soldiers in alleged incidents, such as in the suburb of Bucha the capital of Kyiv, have led members of the international community to accuse the Russian government of war crimes. The modern outlook on what constitutes a war crime can be traced far back, most notably to 20th-century agreements like the Geneva Conventions.
As the United Nations states, “the prohibition of certain behavior in the conduct of armed conflict can be traced back many centuries, the concept of war crimes developed particularly at the end of the 19th century and beginning of the 20th century.” This is when the development of international humanitarian law, specifically the law of armed conflict between nation-states, began to develop and became officially codified. Before the Geneva Conventions, there were the Hague Conventions adopted in 1899 and 1907 which “focus[ed] on the prohibition to warring parties to use certain means and methods of warfare.”
After the Hague Conventions, the Geneva Conventions were officially adopted by the United Nations. According to Deutsche Welle, “The Geneva Conventions, four international treaties that aim to protect people not involved in the conflict — civilians, medics, prisoners of war and soldiers who can no longer fight — were adopted on August 12, 1949, after lengthy deliberations.” The International Committee of the Red Cross furthers this notion by declaring “The Geneva Conventions and their Additional Protocols sit at the core of international humanitarian law.”
World War II saw terrible atrocities that were often committed against civilian targets, which were fresh in the member nations’ minds as they agreed to revise and update the previous conventions with extra protections for civilians and property in times of conflict. As Deutsche Welle states, revisions to the conventions in 1977 added additional protections for victims of armed conflicts and have been ratified by 196 nations.
Addressing the actions of the Russian soldiers within Ukraine regarding violations of the Geneva Convention is easy to contextualize but harder to define explicitly. According to NBC, Russia has denied Western accusations of purposefully targeting civilians. The 1949 Geneva Conventions say that war crimes encompass a broad range of behavior in armed conflicts such as targeting civilians, torture, and attacking civilian sites that don’t pose any military threat or significance. More grave accusations that the Ukrainian government has levied against Russia is that it committed genocide against the Ukrainian people. So far, most nations have refrained from formally accusing Russia of genocide, as it is much harder to prove as a criminal charge in an international court of law.
There is a stain of one’s record that is attached to accusations of war crimes, but experts such as William Schabas, professor of International Law at Middlesex University in London have stated that there is a difference between rhetoric and reality. As NBC reports that Schabas, who was also a member of the Sierra Leone Truth and Reconciliation Commission said, “It would be a very unusual war if there weren’t war crimes on both sides.”
This sentiment is shared by groups such as Amnesty International that the Geneva Conventions are routinely violated in a variety of modern conflicts. The actions of the great military powers such as China, Russia, and the United States that place great emphasis on precision warfare and surgical drone strikes to distinguish between civilian and military targets is a false narrative, according to human rights groups; these countries have also used their veto power to block resolutions to further regulate war. Amnesty International states, “the reality on the ground is that civilians are routinely targeted where they live, work, study, worship and seek medical care. Parties to armed conflict unlawfully kill, maim and forcibly displace millions of civilians while world leaders shirk their responsibility and turn their backs on war crimes and immense suffering.”
It is clear that the evolution of armed conflict has changed how many view the application of the Geneva Conventions, and there may be additional calls in the future on further strengthening and expanding the rules of war.