What are international crimes?

The term "international crime" is a collective term for certain extremely serious violations of international law: genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture and enforced disappearances. Other heinous crimes like piracy and aircraft hijacking are not considered international crimes, despite them having an international component.


Article 3 of the Dutch International Crimes Act defines a person guilty of genocide as follows:

Anyone who, with the intention of destroying a particular group wholly or in part, be the group national, ethnic, or religious in nature, or a group belonging to a particular race, does the following:

  • kills members of the group;
  • inflicts grievous bodily or psychological harm on members of the group;
  • intentionally forces living conditions on the group that are aimed at the whole or partial destruction of the group;
  • imposes measures which have the aim of preventing births within the group; or
  • forcibly transfers children from the group to another group.

The criminal act or acts only constitute genocide if the person has committed the crime(s) in question with the intent to eradicate a particular group.

In recent history, genocide has occurred in a number of countries. One of these is Rwanda. In 1994, an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed within a span of one hundred days by government militias, Hutu militias, and others. Because the aim was to wipe out Tutsi population, this constitutes genocide. Genocide has also taken place in the Netherlands, namely during World War II.

Dutch criminal cases involving suspected genocide include the case against Frans van A. (Iraq) and the case against Yvonne B. (Rwanda).

War Crimes

War crimes are violations of the laws and customs of warfare. These laws and customs establish how force may be used in wartime ("armed conflict") and are intended to protect those who are not involved in the fighting. In Dutch law, these rules are laid down in the Wartime Offenses Act (for war crimes committed prior to 2003 or in any war in which the Netherlands was involved) and in Articles 5 through 7 of the International Crimes Act. Examples of war crimes are plundering, rape, and summarily executing civilians or prisoners of war - crimes committed during wartime.

History holds countless examples of war and some wars are still going on today. Prominent examples of such armed conflict include the wars in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Afghanistan. One example of a Dutch criminal case involving suspected war crimes is the case against Habibullah J. (Afghanistan).

Crimes against humanity

Article 4 of the International Crimes Act addresses crimes against humanity. It defines them as crimes committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack on the civilian population. Examples of crimes against humanity include the deportation or forcible transfer of a population, torture, enslavement, rape, forced prostitution or any other comparably grave form of sexual violence, and murder.

In the Netherlands, these crimes were only made punishable as such with the passage of the International Crimes Act in October 2003. For this reason, individuals may only be criminally prosecuted under the Dutch legislation for crimes against humanity committed on or after 1 October 2003.

A concrete example of crimes against humanity is the system of apartheid supported by the government of South Africa between 1948 and 1990. No cases of crimes against humanity have been brought before Dutch courts to date.


Torture is prohibited by Dutch law in the Torture Convention Implementation Act (which covers acts of torture committed between 1989-2003) and Articles 1-8 of the International Crimes Act (which covers acts of torture committed on or after 1 October 2003).

In short, torture refers to the intentional infliction of severe physical or mental pain by a public official (or with the consent of a public official). The perpetrator must have a specific purpose, such as obtaining information or a confession from the victim, or for reasons of discrimination or to incite fear in the victim. Dutch criminal cases involving suspected torture include the case against Sébastian N. (Congo) and the case against Hesamuddin H. (Afghanistan).

Enforced disappearences

As of 2011, enforced disappearances have been punishable under Articles 4 and 8a of the Dutch International Crimes Act. The law defines "enforced disappearance" as follows:

the arrest, detention, or abduction of persons by, or with the authorization, support, or acquiescence of a State or a political organization, followed by a refusal to acknowledge that deprivation of freedom, or to give information on the fate or whereabouts of those persons, with the intention of removing them from the protection of the law for a prolonged period of time.

No cases involving these crimes against humanity have been brought before Dutch courts to date.