A war crime is a “crime committed against an enemy, prisoners of war, or subjects in wartime that violate international agreements or, as in the case of genocide, are offenses against humanity[1].” The concept of war crimes relies heavily on the idea that people can be held responsible for their actions, the actions of others and their country during a time of war. War crimes come under the umbrella of Crimes of Obedience. Crimes of Obedience occur when a person with authority and/or power commands another to complete an act that’s considered immoral or illegal by the wider community[2].


War and other conflicts are issues that still happen in today’s modern world, such as the Afghan War and the Yemeni Crisis. If war is still occurring, then war crimes and crimes of obedience are still a concern to the international community. The idea of war crimes is also fairly recent, as before WWII the horrors of war were accepted and there was no international agreement that stated political and military leaders should face punishment the acts committed by their nation[3].

2 The Psychological Theory


The main social behaviour theory behind war crimes is obedience. In psychology, obedience is “a form of social influence where an individual acts in response to a direct order” from someone with authority, power or of higher status and if the order was not given the person would not have acted this way[4].

Obedience in relation to war crimes was first researched by Stanley Milgram, an American social psychologist made famous by his controversial experiment on obedience. In Milgram’s experiment, 40 volunteer participants were paired with another ‘participant’ who was really one of Milgram’s co-workers. Straws were drawn to see who would be the ‘teacher’ and who would be the ‘learner’. The draw was fixed so the real participant would always be the teacher.

The teacher and a fake researcher were taken to a separate room, after seeing the ‘learner’ be restrained and covered in electrodes. In this separate room was the generator, which the teacher was unaware of was fake. The “learner was asked to memorize a list of word pairs, and the participant was told he’d be testing the learner’s recall of those words, and should administer an electric shock for every wrong answer, increasing the shock level a small amount each time[5].” The learner would purposefully give wrong answers to test how far the teacher would go giving the shock. If the teacher hesitated, perhaps because of the learner’s fake yells of pain, the ‘researcher’ would give orders to continue with the experiment (see Figure 1 for orders).

The first round of experiments shocked Milgram. Around 67% of participants continued to administering the maximum 450-volt shock, while all participants continued to at least 300 volts[6]. Milgram continued to conduct this experiment over the next few years, changing small things to see the effect on people’s obedience. Milgram’s final conclusion was that obedience was higher if:

  • The person giving orders was nearby and perceived as an authority figure, especially if from a prestigious institution
  • The volunteer was ‘depersonalized’ or places at a distance from the ‘learner’, such as in another room
  • The volunteer didn’t see anyone else disobeying, no role models of defiance
  • The learner is unknown to the teacher[7]

This experiment highlighted the way obedience could have a negative outcome and could cause harm to others.

People obey for many different reasons. Most commonly people obey as they think they will receive a reward or because they don’t want to be punished for disobeying[8]. In war, showing obedience could be as simple as following a commander’s order to get out of bed. However, obeying could also be as extreme as opening fire on a group on innocent citizens because you were ordered to. This is where war crimes come in, as they an extreme example of obedience.


One of the most famous examples of war crimes is the Holocaust, the killing of 6 million Jews, gypsies and communities in death camps around Nazi Germany and other countries under Nazi control. Many German soldiers involved in the Holocaust later said they were only following orders, some even saying that they thought only good would come from them following their orders. This argument didn’t hold up in court and many of them were executed.

A modern example of a war crime would be Ghouta Chemical Attack on August 21 2013. The Zamalka and Moadamiya neighbourhoods, both opposition-controlled suburbs, were hit by rockets containing some sort of chemical. The death toll varies from at least 281 to 1,729, while around 3,600 people were hospitalized displaying neurotoxic symptoms.

3 The Perspectives


By law, it is obligatory to prevent war and other atrocity crimes. According to Article 6 and 7 of the International Bill of Human Rights, people must ‘protect the right to life and no one should be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment[9].’ It also says that any state that puts the ICESCR into force ‘accepts a legal obligation to promote and protect human rights and fundamental freedoms[10].’ Also, during the 2005 World Summit Outcome Document, all UN Member States committed to protecting their population from war crimes, along with genocide, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing[11].


According to a survey of Serbian citizens performed by the OSCE (Organization for Security & Co-operation in Europe), 44% of people thought that anyone responsible for war crimes should be held responsible for their actions, even if they were following orders of a superior officer. 45% of people also thought that each country should put its own war criminals on trial (see Appendix 2 for further information).

In another survey conducted by the ICRC (International Committee of the Red Cross) that surveyed people from across 17 countries. It found that 59% of people agreed ‘that there are rules in war that are so important that people who break them should be punished[12]’, and 76% said that ‘those who have violated certain rules of war should be put on trial[13].’ Similar to the survey conducted by the OSCE, around 55% believed that a countries’ own government should hold responsibility for punishing their war criminals (see Appendix 3 for more information).

4 Conclusion & Recommendations


To prevent war crimes going unpunished or unchecked there is a number of laws in place. Examples of these would be the 1945 Australian War Crimes Act, which outlines what a war crime is and what punishment can be given, as well as the ICC’s (International Criminal Court) Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Statute), which ‘sets out the Court’s jurisdiction over genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and – as of an amendment in 2010 – the crime of aggression[14].’ These documents help define the issue, as well as aid in delivery a sentence t a war criminal. The UN also has policies in place to try and avoid war crimes occurring during armed conflicts such as the United Nations peacekeeping operations. The UN’s article entitled ‘Peace and Security’ further outlines what they do to ‘prevent disputes from escalating into war and help restore peace when armed conflict does break out’[15].


Bbc.co.uk. (2014). BBC – Ethics – War: War crimes. [online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/war/overview/crimes_1.shtml [Accessed 19 Apr. 2019].

Crash Course (2014). Social Influence: Crash Course Psychology #38. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UGxGDdQnC1Y&list=PL8dPuuaLjXtOPRKzVLY0jJY-uHOH9KVU6&index=39 [Accessed 19 Apr. 2019].

En.wikipedia.org. (2019). Ghouta chemical attack. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ghouta_chemical_attack#cite_note-MSF_neurotoxic-5 [Accessed 19 Apr. 2019].

En.wikipedia.org. (2019). List of ongoing armed conflicts. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ongoing_armed_conflicts [Accessed 19 Apr. 2019].

En.wikipedia.org. (2019). List of war crimes. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_war_crimes#2011%E2%80%93present:_Syrian_civil_war [Accessed 19 Apr. 2019].

En.wikipedia.org. (2019). Stanley Milgram. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stanley_Milgram [Accessed 19 Apr. 2019].

Federal Register of Legislation (2019). War Crimes Act 1945. The Australian Government.

Greene, A. (2018). AFP investigating Australian soldiers for alleged war crimes in Afghanistan. [online] ABC News. Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-11-29/federal-police-investigate-alleged-soldier-war-crime-afghanistan/10565720 [Accessed 19 Apr. 2019].

Greene, A. (2019). War crimes inquiry facing further delay beyond federal election. [online] ABC News. Available at: https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-03-08/australian-defence-force-war-crimes-inquiry-delayed/10880922 [Accessed 19 Apr. 2019].

Human Rights Watch: Attacks on Ghouta. (2013). [ebook] Human Rights Watch. Available at: https://www.hrw.org/sites/default/files/reports/syria_cw0913_web_1.pdf [Accessed 19 Apr. 2019].

Icc-cpi.int. (n.d.). Resource library. [online] Available at: https://www.icc-cpi.int/resource-library#coreICCtexts [Accessed 19 Apr. 2019].

International Committee of the Red Cross (n.d.). The People on War Report: ICRC worldwide consultation on the rules of war. International Committee of the Red Cross.

McLeod, S. (2007). Obedience to Authority | Simply Psychology. [online] Simplypsychology.org. Available at: https://www.simplypsychology.org/obedience.html [Accessed 19 Apr. 2019].

Meldrum, R. (2013). Syria: Thousands suffering neurotoxic symptoms treated in hospitals supported by MSF | Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International. [online] Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) International. Available at: https://www.msf.org/syria-thousands-suffering-neurotoxic-symptoms-treated-hospitals-supported-msf [Accessed 19 Apr. 2019].

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (2011). Attitudes towards war crimes issues, ICTY and the national judiciary. Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Padowitz, K. (n.d.). Crimes of Obedience. [online] Criminal Defense Attorney | Psychology of Law And Criminal Behavior. Available at: http://www.psychology-criminalbehavior-law.com/2015/02/crimes-obedience-kenneth-padowitz-attorney/ [Accessed 19 Apr. 2019].

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (1996). Fact Sheet No.2 (Rev.1), The International Bill of Human Rights. Geneva: United Nations.

Un.org. (n.d.). Peace and Security. [online] Available at: https://www.un.org/en/sections/issues-depth/peace-and-security/index.html [Accessed 19 Apr. 2019].

United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect (2018). Framework of Analysis for Atrocity Crimes: A tool for prevention. New York: United Nations.

war crime. (2012). In: Dictionary.com. [online] Dictionary.com LLC. Available at: https://www.dictionary.com/browse/war-crime [Accessed 19 Apr. 2019].

[1] Dictionary.com, War crimes, Author Unknown, Date Unknown

[2] Psychology of Law and Criminal Behaviour, ‘Crimes of Obedience’, Kenneth Padowitz, Unknown Date

[3] BBC, War Crimes, Author Unknown, 2014

[4] Simple Psychology, Obedience to Authority, Saul McLeod, 2007

[5] Crash Course, Social Influence: Crash Course Psychology #38, Online Video, 2014

[6] Crash Course, ‘Social Influence: Crash Course Psychology #38’, 2014

[7] Crash Course, ‘Social Influence: Crash Course Psychology #38’, 2014

[8] SparkNotes, ‘Social Psychology: Obedience and Authority’, Date Unknown

[9] Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘Fact Sheet No.2 (Rev.1), The International Bill of Human Rights’, Author Unknown, 1996

[10] Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘Fact Sheet No.2 (Rev.1), The International Bill of Human Rights’, Author Unknown, 1996

[11] United Nations Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, ‘Framework of Analysis of Atrocity Crimes’, Author Unknown, 2014 (reprinted 2018)

[12] International Committee of the Red Cross, ‘The People on War Report: ICRC worldwide consultation on the rules of war’, Greenberg Research, Date Unknown

[13] International Committee of the Red Cross, ‘The People on War Report: ICRC worldwide consultation on the rules of war’, Greenberg Research, Date Unknown

[14] International Criminal Court, ‘Resource library: Core ICC texts’, Unknown Author, Unknown Date

[15] United Nations, ‘Peace and Security’, Unknown Author, Unknown Date

author avatar
William Anderson (Schoolworkhelper Editorial Team)
William completed his Bachelor of Science and Master of Arts in 2013. He current serves as a lecturer, tutor and freelance writer. In his spare time, he enjoys reading, walking his dog and parasailing. Article last reviewed: 2022 | St. Rosemary Institution © 2010-2024 | Creative Commons 4.0

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