What Is International Crime?

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  • Written By: Renee Booker
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  • Last Modified Date: 15 January 2020
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The term "international crime" does not have one, simple, universal meaning. In most cases, however, an international crime refers to atrocities committed on an international level, such as genocide, war crimes, crimes of aggression, and human trafficking. International criminal law is extremely complex, as is prosecution of defendants charged with an international crime.

International law in general is a complex web of international treaties with specialized courts formed to adjudicate legal issues that arise in international law. Until the 1990s, individuals charged with an international crime were either tried under the laws of a particular nation or tried in in courts formed for a specific purpose, such as the Nuremberg war crimes trials. In 1998, the Rome Statute of the International Court was adopted and eventually ratified in 2002, forming the first permanent international criminal court. Not all countries, however, have signed on to the formation of the court — most notably absent are the United States, China, and India, among others.

Genocide is an international crime that involves the intentional and systematic destruction of a specific ethnic, racial, or religious group. The most famous example of the crime of genocide in recent history involves Adolf Hitler's actions during the 1940s. Although the definition of exactly what constitutes genocide may vary among scholars, all agree that genocide is an international issue and, therefore, should be considered an international crime.


War crimes are crimes that are committed during a time of war and are specific to treatment of prisoners or citizens of an occupied territory. There are a number of international treaties that set forth the conduct expected by soldiers during the occupation of enemy territory, as well as how prisoners are to be treated. In general, prisoners or citizens of an occupied territory are to be treated humanely, despite that fact that they are prisoners. Violations of the terms of a treaty regarding the treatment of prisoners is considered a war crime and is punishable under international law.

Human trafficking is another international crime that involves abducting individuals from their home country and transporting them across international borders for profit. In some cases, human trafficking involves the abduction of women who are then sold into the sex trade. Human trafficking may also involve the abduction of individuals for sale into the slave trade.

Crimes of aggression are also considered to be an international crime. Crimes of aggression include situations wherein a military conflict is initiated without any reasonable justification such as self-defense. Usually, a crime of aggression is simply an attempt by one nation to gain territory. The crime of aggression is a relatively new crime and therefore the definition is ever-evolving.


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