Crimes against humanity

Crimes against humanity

« A man is no longer the equal of another man in every crime against humanity. He is initially a victim of banning (through marriage, occupation, free movement, etc.), then of marking with a star or a tattoo, finally of confinement. Man is then reduced to nothing; he can be put to death with impunity in a country where murder is a crime. He no longer possesses the name that each human being receives at birth and which gives him the opportunity to practise his rights. Human beings, men, women and children, are then exterminated without lawful judgement and without possibility of defence; their bodies must be made to disappear by gas and fire or in communal graves.»


Pierre Truche,

Juger les crimes contre l’humanité. 20 ans après le procès Barbie [judging crimes against humanity. 20 years after the Barbie trial], Lyon, ENS Éditions, 2009

Defining a crime against humanity


A crime against humanity is an exceptional crime.
Not all serious collective offences constitute crimes against humanity.

Many crimes have been committed throughout both distant and recent history, but trials for crimes against humanity are rare.

The recent legal definition of a crime against humanity is a sign of international legal recognition of Human and Individual Rights by a number of States.

The statute of the Nuremberg court remains the founding event in relation to a definition of crime against humanity. Today, this definition has been extended in both international legal texts (statutes of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda: ICTY and ICTR, and the International Criminal Court) and certain national legal texts (Canadian criminal code, Finnish, Portuguese, Ivorian, Slovenian penal codes and articles 211-1 to 212-3 of the French penal code).

Not all States that have incorporated the notion of crime against humanity into their national law have adopted a uniform definition of this offence.

However, we can provide the following summary of the definitions of crime against humanity:

Crimes against humanity encompass serious human rights violations with specific characteristics
For an act to be qualified as a crime against humanity, it must have been committed systematically or on a large scale.
However, an individual who commits a crime against a single victim or a small number of victims can be considered guilty of a crime against humanity, if his act or acts fall within the aforementioned specific context (aggression that is systematic or large scale).

• Crime against humanity is based on inhuman acts directed towards the physical person, in particular murder, extermination, reduction to slavery, deportation, rape, and torture.
Apartheid and forced disappearances complement this list.

The victims
“Inhuman acts and persecutions that, in the name of a State implementing a policy of ideological hegemony, have been committed systematically or collectively, not only against persons who belong to a racial or religious community, but also against opponents of this policy, whatever the form of opposition, should be considered to come under crime against humanity” (French Court of Appeal decision of 20th December 1985 in the case opposing the FNDIRP [French National Federation of Deported and Imprisoned Resistance Fighters and Patriots] and Klaus Barbie, prior to the Barbie trial in Lyon).

• Perpetration of a crime against humanity requires that individuals use the machine of State or the means offered to them by major financial groups.
The crime must have been committed at the instigation or under the direction of a government, organisation or group.

A racial, national, religious or political motive is inherent to genocide and to certain persecutions forming crimes against humanity.

The statute of limitations does not apply to crimes against humanity. Their perpetrator can be prosecuted as long as he is alive.

The crime of genocide


The crime of genocide may be considered a category of crime against humanity; this is the case in French law.
Not all crimes against humanity are genocides.


Article 211-1 of the French criminal code defines the crime of genocide before giving the definition of other crimes against humanity.

« Through execution of a concerted plan leading to the total or partial destruction of a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, or of a group determined on the basis of any other arbitrary criterion, a genocide is constituted by the act of committing, or having committed, one of the following acts against the members of this group:
– intended attack on life;
– serious attack on physical or psychic integrity;
– subjection to living conditions typically leading to total or partial destruction of the group;
– measures aimed at hindering births;
– compulsory transfer of children.»


Genocide is punished by life imprisonment.


Crimes against humanity
perpetrated in the 20th century and recognised as genocides


Four 20th century crimes against humanity have been recognised and qualified as genocides by the law:

  • The genocide against the Armenians in Turkey
  • The genocide perpetrated by the Nazis against the Jews and Tziganes
  • The genocide of the Tutsi in Rwanda.
  • The massacre of thousands of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica in 1995.

Other crimes against humanity are the subject of debate amongst legal experts and historians in relation to their qualification as genocides: the famine in Ukraine caused by Stalin, massacres committed by the Khmers Rouges in Cambodia, the situation in Darfur (from 2003 onwards), etc.