Crimes Against Humanity

Crimes against humanity are criminal acts that are directed at an identifiable group of people. Genocide is an example of a crime against humanity. The Holocaust that took place during World War II was a crime against humanity. Crimes against humanity are typically motivated by the target group’s religion, ethnicity, or some other trait that is not the direct result of anything one individual did in particular. To explore this concept, consider the following crimes against humanity definition.

Definition of Crimes Against Humanity


  1. Acts deliberately committed as part of an attack aimed at a specific sect of the population.


1890    Used by American Civil War soldier, politician, and writer, George Washington Williams, to describe the practices of the Belgian King, Leopold II

What are Crimes Against Humanity

Crimes against humanity are criminal acts that target a group of people based on their religion, ethnicity, or some other trait, which is not a direct result of something that group has done. One of the most common crimes against humanity is genocide, which is the murder of a large portion of the population. Genocide is often either condoned, or carried out by the government.

Modern Crimes Against Humanity

While history looks back to Nazi Germany for its example of crimes against humanity, the truth is, many modern conflicts see some combination of displacement, torture, sexual violence, and death against civilians. In fact, the number of civilian deaths in modern conflicts far exceed that of armed combatants.

The brutality of violence committed against civilians sickens the rest of the world, as women are forced into sexual slavery, children are abducted and used as slaves or child soldiers; political rebels or dissenters are killed or imprisoned, tortured, and murdered. All this because the targeted people happen to be members of the “wrong” group. This may be due to their religious beliefs, ethnicity, social class, or political beliefs.

List of Crimes Against Humanity

Crimes against humanity consist of any act that is violent in nature and aimed at a specific section of the population. What follows is a list of crimes against humanity. This list of crimes against humanity does not contain every possible crime that can be so classified; however, the acts specified in this list of crimes against humanity are some of the more common acts defined by the term.

  • Murder/Extermination (Extermination is the act of killing a larger group of people, while murder is often more individualized)
  • Enslavement
  • Deportation
  • Torture
  • Sexual violence, including rape, prostitution, forced pregnancy, or sterilization
  • Persecution of a group based on politics, race, nationality, ethnicity, culture, religion, or gender
  • Enforced disappearance (by either government-authorized abduction, or imprisonment)
  • Apartheid (segregation of South Africa’s white and non-white populations)
  • Other inhumane acts of violence that are meant to intentionally cause mental or physical suffering or injury to the victims

War Crimes

War crimes are serious violations of the laws that govern war. These laws of armed conflict are set forth in The Hague and Geneva Conventions. The Hague Conventions of 1899, and 1907, resulted in a series of international treaties that defined crimes of war, and set certain rules for engaging in war.

Like crimes against humanity, crimes of war can also consist of such violent acts as murder and torture. The only difference is that crimes of war are, as the term would suggest, acts that are committed during wartime. For this reason, the crimes committed by the Nazis during the Holocaust are often referred to interchangeably as crimes against humanity, and crimes of war.

In addition to outright violations of laws of war, war crimes may also include failures to follow the rules of battle or procedure. Crimes of war, in this regard, include attacking individuals who have issued a truce, or using a flag that would otherwise symbolize a truce as a way to trick and attack enemy troops.

Interestingly, it is legal for a soldier to wear enemy or civilian clothes in order to infiltrate enemy lines, for the purposes of conducting an espionage or sabotage mission. What is not legal, however, is to fight or kill someone – even if that someone is a military target – while behind enemy lines in disguise. Similarly, it is not a war crime to attack enemy troops who are parachuting into one’s territory.

Crimes Against Humanity Examples in the Nuremberg Trials

Perhaps some of the most famous examples of crimes against humanity are those that were investigated during the Nuremberg Trials, which took place from 1945 to 1949. The very purpose of these 13 trials was to try Nazi Party officials, as well as the German lawyers, doctors, and businessmen who were associated with them, for the crimes they had committed against humanity during WWII. The trials became historic for establishing precedent in how international courts should deal with issues like genocide and other examples of crimes against humanity.

These crimes began shortly after Adolf Hitler rose to power in Germany in 1933. With the Nazi government, Hitler created and carried out policies designed to persecute the Jews, and anyone else that he deemed to be a threat to his vision of a perfect Nazi state. Hitler’s policies continued to become more and more violent until World War II finally ended in 1945. By that point, it is estimated that the Nazis had, with the approval of their government, murdered approximately six million Jews, and between four and six million non-Jews.

The “Trial of the Major War Criminals” heard the cases of twenty-four individuals who were indicted on charges of crimes against humanity. Additionally, six Nazi organizations (such as the Gestapo, or secret police) were determined to be criminal in nature. Several members of the Nazi party – including Adolf Hitler himself, and two of his top associates, Heinrich Himmler and Joseph Goebbels – had committed suicide before they could ever be brought to trial.

Those who did stand trial stood by the common defense that the acts they committed were not technically considered “criminal” at the time. This was, they claimed, because the laws that criminalized these acts had not yet been created when the acts took place. Ultimately, 21 of the 24 defendants were found guilty. Twelve men were sentenced to death (ten of which were executed by hanging), and the rest were imprisoned from between 10 years to life, depending on the severity of the crimes they committed.

After these initial trials were complete, another 12 trials were held at Nuremberg. These trials are known as the “Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings.” One of these trials was the “Doctors Trial,” in which 23 defendants were accused of committing crimes against humanity, such as conducting medical experiments on prisoners of war, come of which included children. Some of these disturbing experiments included:

  • Testing the drinking of sea-water: Prisoners were starved, and given nothing but sea water to drink for approximately three months, for the purposes of testing how to make sea water more drinkable.
  • Experiments involving poison: Prisoners were secretly poisoned so they could be studied, as they died from the effects. If they did not die right away, they were killed, so their bodies could be studied under autopsy.
  • Incendiary bomb research: Prisoners would be burned with phosphorous so that different medications could be tested to see how well they treated the burns.
  • Immunization experiments: Scientists would infect patients with various diseases, including malaria, tuberculosis, and typhus, among others, in order to test vaccines and treatments.
  • The collecting of Jews’ skeletons: Jews’ skeletons were collected in an attempt to put them on display, to show just how “inferior” the “Jewish race” was to the German race.

Another of these Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings was the “Judges Trial.” This trial concerned the 16 lawyers and judges who were charged with enabling the Nazis by manipulating the laws of the Third Reich to suit their evil schemes.

Of the 185 defendants indicted in the Subsequent Nuremberg Proceedings, 12 were given death sentences, eight were given life in prison, and 77 were imprisoned for terms other than life. However, many of these sentences were ultimately reduced later on.

European Colonization of the Americas

Most people think of the Holocaust as being the worst example of crimes against humanity in human history, but the European Colonization of the Americas actually takes the top spot. While 17 million people were killed during the Holocaust, the European Colonization of the Americas is responsible for an estimated 100 million deaths.

What often makes this argument disputable is the same one the Nazis relied on in their arguments during the Nuremberg Trials: the laws as we know them now did not exist back then. For one thing, even the term “genocide” did not emerge until the twentieth century. However, Christopher Columbus’ famous voyage and “discovery” of the Americas in 1492 resulted in the deaths of a majority of the natives who were already a well-established people.

It is therefore argued that the European colonization of the Americas cannot be summed up with one event in particular, but by the centuries of violence that it has inspired. The displacement and genocide of natives in order to conquer land and establish colonies were crimes against humanity, whether or not there were official laws on the books at that time that could declare them as such. Even the fact that the European settlers wiped out several native peoples, just by the new-world diseases they brought with them, can be disputed as a crime against humanity.

Related Legal Terms and Issues

  • Deportation – The act of transporting foreigners out of a country.
  • Precedent – An example to be referred to in similar situations in the future.
  • Third Reich – The Nazi regime headed by Adolf Hitler that existed from 1933 to 1945.