The Hague and international community have little remorse for convicted war criminals. Generally, there are only two sentences: death and prison. This has been the case since 1919, when the Treaty of Versailles was established. The Treaty distinguishes war crimes (acts committed under the guise of military necessity) from crimes against humanity (acts committed against the civilian population) and manages the overlap between the two.
Let’s take a look at how the international community punishes war criminals for their transgressions against humanity:
The most lenient of the punishments is never issued by The Hague, but is enforced by the country of the criminal to prevent the issue from going higher. The guilty are confined to their home instead of a traditional prison. If they are allowed outside communication or travel, it’s strictly monitored.
Notable Criminal: Pol Pot (1997 until death in 1998)
Although he was accused or directly responsible for the deaths of between 1 and 3 million people in Cambodia (which only had a population of 8 million people), Saloth Sar, later known as Pol Pot, was only ever tried for the execution of his right-hand man, Son Sen. Around 10 months into his sentence, he died of a lethal combination of Valium and chloroquine. It’s unknown if it was intentional suicide, accidental, or even murder.
Lengthy prison sentences
For most war criminals, lengthy prison sentences are the norm. Unless you’re found to be only an accessory to war crimes, sentences are typically twenty years and more. With such long imprisonments, life after release is still hell.
Notable Criminal: Charles Taylor (sentenced to 50 years in 2012)
Taylor was the deposed President of Liberia and one of the most prominent warlords in Africa. He rose to power during the First Liberian Civil War and was heavily involved in the Sierra Leone Civil War along with the Second Liberian Civil War. The presiding judge at The Hague, Richard Lussick, said at his sentencing, “The accused has been found responsible for aiding and abetting as well as planning some of the most heinous and brutal crimes recorded in human history.”
Life in prison
For the top echelon of war criminals — those too vile even for the sweet release of death — a life sentence is the punishment of choice.
Notable Criminal: Philippe Pétain (1945 until death in 1951)
Pétain was once a beloved General, the Lion of Verdun, hero of France — that was until the fall of France in 1940. He was immediately appointed Prime Minister of France and turned the Third French Republic into Vichy France, the puppet state of Nazi Germany. He willingly sided with Hitler’s agenda (including antisemitism, censorship, and the “felony of opinion”) while squashing the French Resistance.
After the fall of the Axis Powers, Pétain was was tried for treason and aiding the Nazi Regime. He was convicted of all charges and sentenced to death. Charles De Gaulle, the new President of France, commuted his sentence to life in prison because of his age and military service during WWI. He was stripped of all military ranks and honors except for the distinction of Marshal of France.
Surprisingly enough, the highest possible punishment for war crimes is also the most issued. A large percentage of those tried at the Nuremberg Trials received the death penalty — more specifically, death by hanging. The
added benefit effect of death by hangings as opposed to use of firing squad is that it took an agonizing 12 to 28 minutes for war criminals to die.
Notable Criminals: Saddam Hussein (Dec. 30, 2006)
Numerous genocides, ethnic cleansings, invasions of foreign states, countless human rights abuses, and the responsibility for the deaths of up to 182,000 civilians, Saddam Hussein was, at one point, the world’s foremost war criminal. Captured by U.S.-led forces near Tikrit, Iraq in 2003, he was later handed to the Iraqi people for a lengthy trial process before he was eventually executed.