Abraham Mohale, Junior Curator, DITSONG: National Museum of Military History


United States of America President, Joe Biden, recently referred to Russian President Vladimir Putin as a war criminal for invading and attacking Ukraine and that did not sit well with the Russian authorities. The Russian government and diplomats held a view that President Joe Biden’s description of the Russian President was extreme and that he was uninformed, and did not understand the word ‘war criminal’. They saw President Bidden as being sarcastic and derogative. This article presents, unearth and vividly give a definition and a description of war crimes and warmongers or so called warlords. According to Wikipedia a warlord is a person who exercises military, economic, and political control over a region in the country without strong national government; a supreme military leader or commander exercising civil power by force usually in a limited area. A war crime is a violation of the laws of war that gives rise to individual criminal responsibility for action by combatants in action, such as intentionally killing civilian and violations of international treaties.


Figure 1. Scenes of war crimes and genocide during the Vietnam War (1 Nov 1955-30 Apr 1975)
(Vietnam history. Internet, jpg).


Just before he died, the last apartheid South African President, F. W. de Klerk declared on an international television interview show that apartheid was not a crime against humanity. The interview created a chorus of aggrieved protests by dismayed apartheid victims, who served brutal atrocities and deaths of loved ones. De Klerk had to explain himself until in his grave by a last letter of apology and recorded video. This has demonstrated repeatedly that many decision-makers, politicians, international diplomats, and lawmakers do not really understand what constitutes war crime and crime against humanity. War crimes can be categorized under the following subheadings


War crimes against humanity


  • Intentionally killing of civilians and prisoners of war
  • Extermination
  • Enslavement and conscription of children in the military
  • Deportation
  • Sexual violations and rape
  • Persecution on political, racial or religious grounds
  • Unnecessarily destroying civilian property
  • Mass killings and genocide


War crimes have plagued mankind for centuries, while there is disagreement over exactly what constitutes a war crime and what a war crime is. The fact remains that military forces have committed atrocities throughout recorded history. The way of prosecuting war criminals or punishing them through non judicial political mechanisms has also changed over time. Options range from take no prisoners or summary executions of prisoners at the other extreme. The problem with judicial proceedings is that they can have a hint of victor’s justice, especially if the jurisdiction, legitimacy and authority of the court are not established in advance. The International Criminal Court (ICC) was established on 17 July 1998 in part to address these concerns.


Figure 2. An International Criminal Court (ICC) session, The Hague, Netherlands. (Image: Internet).


The role of the International Criminal Court (ICC)

The International Criminal Court investigates and when warranted, tries individuals charged with the gravest crimes of concern to the international community, genocide, war crimes against humanity and the crimes of aggression. The ICC is participating in a global fight to end impunity and through international criminal justice, the Court aims to hold those responsible accountable for their crimes from happening again. The Court cannot reach these goals alone. As a court of last resort, it seeks to complement, not replace national courts. Governed by an international treaty called the Rome Statute, the ICC is the world’s first permanent international criminal court.


Gacaca Courts


Gacaca courts were a system of community justice in Rwanda after the 1994 genocide. The word Gacaca can be translated as ‘short grass’ referring to the public space where neighbourhood male elders (abagabo) used to meet to solve local problems. This community initiative was hailed internationally as a reconciliatory nation building and social cohesion initiative project. The name of this system was then adopted in 2001 as the title of the state’s new criminal justice system to try those deemed responsible for the Rwanda genocide where over an estimated 500 000 people were killed, displaced, tortured and raped. An international criminal tribunal for Rwanda eventually convicted 61 individuals at a cost of $ 1.3 billion. (French translation: Tribunal penal international pour le Rwanda).


Five well-known war criminals


Saddam Hussein


Saddam Hussein was an Iraqi politician who served as the fifth president of Iraq from 16 July 1979 until 9 April 2003. He was executed by hanging after being convicted of crimes against humanity following his trial and conviction for the illegal killings of 148 Shiites in the town of Dujail in 1982.


Radovan Karadzic


Radovan Karadzic is a Bosnian Serb war criminal. He was convicted of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes by the international criminal tribunal. He served as the President of the Republika Srpska during the Bosnian War (1992-95).


Charles Tylor


Charles Tylor (Liberian politician) was sentenced to fifty years in prison. He was 64 years of age at the time of sentencing, making his sentence effectively a life sentence. His sentence was upheld on appeal. On 26 April 2012, Tylor, the former president of Liberia, became the first head of state since Nuremberg to be convicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity by an international or hybrid tribunal. Tylor became president of Liberia in 1997 until 9 April 2003.


Ratko Mladic


Ratko Mladic is a Bosnian Serb convicted war criminal and colonel-general who led the army of the Republic Srpska during the Yugoslav Wars. In 2017 he was found guilty of committing war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide by an international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. He is currently serving a life sentence in The Hague for war crimes.


Augustin Bizimana


Bizimana was a Rwandan politician who was wanted for his alleged role in the Rwandan genocide. Bizimana held the position of minister of defence in the government of Juvénal Habyarimana formed on 18 July 1993. Bizimana was charged before an international criminal tribunal with genocide, complicity in genocide and crimes against humanity. He was the most wanted war criminal at the time. His remains were found in a grave in Congo-Brazzaville. A United Nations crimes prosecutor declared that a DNA test confirmed his identity and that he had been dead for 20 years.




Philosopher Bertrand Russel (18 May 1872 – 2 February 1970) once said war does not determine who is right but only who is left. There was always a need for mankind to put an end to wars. Otherwise, wars will put an end to humankind. From ancient religious divine rule, monarchy class rule, warlords existed, they were powerful to the extent of defying the rule of God. Ancient Greek and French philosophers Plato and JJ Rousseau theorised on governance and the foundation of the state. Their perspectives were human by nature and remain complex. The state must be controlled by social contract and rules of engagement, otherwise anarchy and lawlessness will rule. Consequences of war are devastating. They created human catastrophes, economic collapses of powerful countries, are characterised by refugees, diseases, child soldiers, dysfunctional and dismantled families. Some warlords have been left for centuries, they never accounted to any institution, their rule was and can still be described as a ‘jungle’ justice. From the era of Stalin, Mussolini and Hitler to our modern day Charles Tylor and Ratko Mladic, the modus operandi of these warlords remained the same.


The United Nations and International Criminal Courts remain essential institutions serving the international community, to prosecute individuals accused of committing serious crimes.



Field Marshal Lord Carver, The War Lords-Military Commanders of the twentieth century. First published in 1976 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson topic international justice

International Criminal tribunal for Rwanda, en.m.


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