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5 Surprising Things that Are War Crimes

Written by Nicholas Suarez 

Introduction

The nature of what constitutes a crime in war is varied and extensive. In general, many of them can be boiled down to, “Don’t be evil” – shooting at civilians, shooting at medics, shooting at soldiers who have already surrendered, and so on. But war is a complicated subject, both morally and procedurally, and over the course of history there have been attempts, all around the world, to create a kind of code that everyone follows, in an attempt to make war a little bit less gruesome.

These codes regarding war have evolved to cover various subjects, most famously with the Geneva Conventions, resulting in some actions in wartime being designated as beyond the pale. We’ve done some digging for you, and today we’d like to present a few of those actions for your entertainment. Here’s five surprising things that are actually war crimes.

Using Antique Weapons

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Imagine you’re in the army. Nice, right? Well, suddenly, you come under attack, bullets and bombs falling all around you. You run into the nearest building to take cover, which happens to be a museum – but in the commotion, you drop your weapon. Now unarmed, you start looking around this museum for something to improvise with, and soon you discover an old sword, hanging on the wall. So, you pick it up, weigh it in your hands, and decide it’s a good choice despite its age, and take it up as your new weapon.

Except, stop right there, buddy, because you’ve just committed a war crime. Hold on, what? How can using an old sword as a weapon, as in the purpose it was originally designed for, be a war crime? Well, it has to do with Protocol I of the Geneva Conventions.

A bit of background: the Geneva Conventions are not one singular treaty, but rather a set of treaties signed over generations; the first was signed in 1864, and new editions of the treaties were negotiated, signed, and ratified over the years, in 1906, 1929, and finally 1949. These are the “main” treaties, signed by most countries on earth, and form the backbone of international law in armed conflicts.

But they’re not the only treaties. After the Fourth Geneva Convention in 1949, three extra documents were later drawn up and ratified, called “protocols”. These aren’t new treaties, per se, but legally they’re just as good, and are taken just as seriously – they’re still signed and ratified by countries party to them. Protocol I, the document we’re interested in for now, was signed in 1977. And in Article 53 of Protocol I, there is a passage that reads as follows:

“…it is prohibited: (a) to commit any acts of hostility directed against the historic monuments, works of art or places of worship which constitute the cultural or spiritual heritage of peoples; (b) to use such objects in support of the military effort; (c) to make such objects the objects of reprisals.”

So, the key section of this article is “B”: to use such objects in support of the military effort. Now, this passage is generally understood to mean that armies shouldn’t use historical monuments or museums full of irreplaceable historical artifacts as cover when under fire, which makes plenty of sense. But the way this passage is written, you cannot, in fact, use an old sword from a museum as a weapon in a modern war, because that sword is technically a cultural artifact, and it says right there that using it in support of the military effort is prohibited. So, samurai, put the sword down and go pick your gun up.

Attacking Livestock

https://flic.kr/p/2mihhAc

In the film, O Brother, Where Art Thou?, there is a scene where a character declares, “I hate cows worse than coppers,” before unloading a magazine of a Tommy gun into a herd of cows, killing several. It turns out this little act of animal cruelty was a whole lot more than just that – it was, in fact, a war crime. Well, technically it wasn’t, because it was in the 1920s and there was no war in that movie, but… details.

Article 54 of Protocol I declares that, “It is prohibited to attack, destroy, remove or render useless objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population, such as food-stuffs, agricultural areas for the production of food-stuffs, crops, livestock, [etc.] … for the specific purpose of denying them for their sustenance value… or for any other motive.”

So, all you Skyrim players who attacked that chicken in the first village, just to be funny? You’re all war criminals. Fortunately for you, Xbox Live doesn’t extradite to the International Criminal Court, so you’ll probably get away with it.

Jokes aside, attacking animals as a means of attritional warfare actually has a long history. The most famous example is probably the United States, during the Indian Wars of the 1870s and 1880s. During this time, the US Army sanctioned the mass slaughter of buffalo herds, the primary food source for the Great Plains Indian tribes, putting pressure on them to accept being moved onto reservations. This was in addition to commercial buffalo hunting, which combined nearly drove the American bison to extinction, and resulted in mass hunger among Indian tribes.

This was, obviously, bad, and so outlawing the killing of animals to damage food supplies is a welcome rule. So don’t kill cows, or you just might end up like George Nelson, and get sent to the electric chair for it.

Using Rusty Barbed Wire

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rusted_barbed_wire.jpg

Biological warfare is outlawed for several very good reasons. It’s horrific and inhumane, it’s not exactly controllable, and it could lead to terrible consequences in the future. But read it the right way, and you’ll realize that using barbed wire, of the kind widely deployed in World War I, could perhaps be a war crime if used in a certain way.

For this entry, let’s talk about a little-known bacteria by the name of Clostridium tetani, which, when it infects a human, causes a condition known as tetanus. You know, that thing you had to get a shot for when you were younger. It’s a good thing, too, because tetanus is not at all pleasant, causing fever, sweating, headaches, and muscle spasms strong enough to fracture your own bones. Thankfully, contracting tetanus is somewhat difficult, and basically impossible if you’re vaccinated against it, which most people reading this post are.

The easiest way to contract tetanus – well, aside from directly injecting it into your body like a weirdo – is to puncture your skin with a piece of rusty metal. Rusty metal itself isn’t anything special to the bacteria; rather, it’s just the perfect place for the bacteria to hang out. They’re generally located outside, along with the bacteria, and they’re sharp enough to cut anyone who accidentally touches one, which allows the bacteria to enter the wound and begin to reproduce, which is, of course, what it wants to do.

So, you don’t get tetanus from rust, which means we’ve kind of cheated with this entry. But rust is generally indicative of something being dirty or old, and potentially infected with tetanus-causing bacteria, meaning if you willingly put up dirty barbed wire to protect your trench, without sanitizing it first, you’re technically engaging in biological warfare, which is a war crime. The lesson here: always wipe down your barbed wire before and after use.

Shooting Trees

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Climate change continues to be a dominant issue of our time, taking up treaties, political debates, and YouTube videos. But as countries make commitments to reducing emissions, some are also making a different kind of commitment: planting more trees. For example, Pakistan’s recently-ousted prime minister, Imran Khan, promised in 2019 to plant ten billion trees as part of its efforts, and so far it’s planted 1.5 billion.

Planting trees is only one part of the wider effort against climate change, but it is welcome all the same. We recognize the value of trees, and the natural environment at large, which is why targeting them during a war is a war crime.

Article 55 of Protocol I, again, says that, “Care shall be taken in warfare to protect the natural environment against widespread, long-term and severe damage.” The same article also states, “Attacks against the natural environment by way of reprisals are prohibited.” That means that if you lose a battle, you can’t take out your frustration on the nearest birch. Sorry, buddy, that’s against the rules.

This particular issue became salient following the end of the Vietnam War. During the conflict, the American armed forces infamously used incendiary and chemical agents in Vietnam to clear large swathes of jungle, as a means of denying Vietcong fighters cover to hide under. This episode prompted Article 55 being added to Protocol I, since chemical weapons are, you know, bad. But the general nature of the article can be interpreted to mean any deliberate destruction of the environment, whether it’s trees, foliage, waterways, or any other natural formations. So, even if you could remove mountains, too bad, general – you still have to fight in them, because that’s nature.

Insulting Prisoners of War

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Our last entry on this list concerns the treatment of prisoners of war. The humane treatment of soldiers captured in battle by an enemy army is one of the most widely-discussed subjects of the Geneva Conventions, to the point where it has its own section. The conduct regarding prisoners of war is everything that one would expect – no torture, no starving, adequate lodgings, things like that. But there’s another interesting addition to those requirements. So it is written, in Article 13, paragraph 2, of Geneva Convention 4:

“Likewise, prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity.”

That’s right, folks – insulting a prisoner of war is actually a war crime. This same provision was also included, in a slightly modified form, in the Third Geneva Conventions, in 1929, meaning it even predates World War II, which was probably one of the worst wars to be a prisoner of war. What gives?

The origins of this particular passage stem from what constitutes the “general welfare” of a prisoner of war. Adequate food, shelter, and medical care is obviously an important concern. But if those needs are met, the pressing need of the soldier might instead be the welfare of their friends or relatives; if, say, they desire to correspond with them, the armed forces holding them have, on paper, a responsibility to provide that opportunity to the prisoner. So, by this logic, the mental and emotional wellbeing of a prisoner of war is just as valid and important as their physical wellbeing. Very honorable, indeed.

At the time of the Third Geneva Conventions, when this passage was written, not everyone agreed with it. The German delegation – it was still Weimar Germany, hold your comments – suggested that the passage be replaced with one protecting soldiers from, “death, wounds, bad treatment, robbery, injuries, and public curiosity.” But that was pushed down in favor of the more specific language of being against insults. The general principle behind it was that prisoners should, at all times, be treated with humanity, because imprisonment by a war enemy is not supposed to be a punishment. So the next time someone makes fun of you for being a snowflake, simply respond that feelings are protected by the Geneva Conventions.

And that’s five surprising actions that are technically war crimes. We hope that we surprised you at least once in this post, and that you learned a thing or two about the conduct of wars, particularly since we seem so keen on bringing them back recently. Maybe you should brush up on your Geneva Conventions knowledge; after all, like this post, they’re all publicly available.

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