How far can an individual be held responsible for crimes against humanity?

Even though war and conflict have existed since the beginning of time, the 20th century has been characterized by the rapid rise of massive crimes against humanity, providing much food for thought. Crimes against humanity refer toobjectively wrong acts deliberately committed as part of a broader systemic attack on a civilian population including rape, genocide and torture. Many of us analysing the countless atrocities in recent history – that of the Holocaust, the Nanjing Massacre and the more recent Rwandan Genocide – are disgusted by what we consider acts of pure evil. We are convinced that these manifestations of pure evil, actions that have claimed countless innocent lives, represent the worst of human nature. Many therefore automatically assume that individuals should take full responsibility for the consequences of their actions. In many cases, accountability is important, but when viewed in context, crimes like these are committed in sets of highly complicated and nuanced circumstances and conditions that must be considered. While crimes against humanity are indeed morally regrettable, I believe that there are certain factors that can prevent us from holding individuals, at various levels, fully responsible for these acts. I will thus analyse this from three different levels of complicity – leaders of organizations, their followers and officials, and members of communities.

The most powerful argument made for the harshest and most punitive measures under international law goes twofold. Firstly, crimes against humanity are morally condemnable – the intentional torture and killing of innocent civilians goes against any standards of human decency, and that should be punished as violations of our common understandings as one humanity. Secondly the scale and degree of harm accrued as a result of crimes against humanity warrants the harshest of punishments under a model of retributive justice. While I acknowledge the extent of harm inflicted on innocent individuals, this does not necessarily lead to the adjudication of responsibility. Our beliefs and values, which influence our actions and decisions, are formed and influenced by coercive conditions and circumstances. Apart from complicity, the adjudication of responsibility also involves the determination of intention of harm. If the links between intentions and actions cannot be proven, the weight of moral condemnation cannot be accorded. Furthermore, it is precisely the nature of International Humanitarian Law that should make us wary of conveniently adjudicating responsibility. Given that the law must straddle diverse cultural contexts, we must not attempt to make assumptions regarding how actors interacted. What may be considered as inhumane or uncivilized in Western societies may be common practice in African tribes. Similarly, what a Chinese or Asian may consider indecent or immoral may be described as liberating in the West. It is therefore more important that we, against emotionally charged voices calling for the harshest of punishments, distinguish consequence from responsibility. In this light, I strongly believe that the moral weight of crimes against humanity should not diminish the weight of other factors when adjudicating responsibility.

Leaders of organizations orchestrating atrocities are definitely responsible for these crimes against humanity. Within the individual, societal, and international context of the time, however, the decisions may not have been pure acts of evil but steps, however misguided, towards a broader and sometimes altruistic good for their community. Leaders, particularly those of nations and political entities, are expected to make critical decisions in the best interest, both short-term and long-term, of the organization or country he or she is leading. This means that leaders are often expected and able to justify the means with the ends. In the context of crimes against humanity ordered by senior officials and leaders, many of these crimes were conducted in the context of chaos, disorder and conflict. Many of these leaders believed that this disorder would lead to severe ramifications. Others may have believed that quick victory in chaos was necessary to secure immediate foreign policy objectives. For instance, Emperor Hirohito of Japan orchestrated massive crimes against humanity through interrogation, torture, and strict policing of colonies under the rule of the Japanese empire. While he was vilified internationally for these acts, he genuinely believed, as with other Japanese officials, that the strict and punishing regime in their colonies was crucial for obtaining the necessary information and stability to cement the Japanese Empire. Many leaders, similar to Emperor Hirohito, believed that a show of force and violence was necessary to pressurize actors or falling in line, thereby serving the interests of their nation’s people. While this does not detract from the moral reprehensibility of the actions and our disapproval of their decision to pursue this means for the end, this means that we cannot treat these leaders and their actions as manifestations of pure evil and demand to exact retribution.

More often than not, crimes against humanity are not directly carried out by the leaders themselves, but by lower-ranking officials in these organisations. While these officials and followers were directly involved in these atrocities, they did so often under the orders, direct and indirect, from their superiors – orders that we cannot reasonably expect them to disobey. Many advocate maximum punishment for these officials as they were at the front line of these atrocities. Others, blinded by emotion, may associate their pains and sorrows with these individuals.

However, these critics fail to realize the power of force in compelling and dictating action. Very often, organizations directing crimes against humanity are military, paramilitaries, or authoritarian political organizations, all of which are highly regimented and hierarchical. These include the Nazi party and its affiliated paramilitaries, the Indonesian Army, or the Rwandan government. The top-down structure facilitates the use of force to compel individuals to obey orders. Critics often point to prolific instances of sheer courage, in which individuals, in the face of threatened sanctions, defy and disobey orders to commit these crimes. However, these examples do not detract from the very real threats to these individuals and their families in cases of disobedience. Very few people are cognizant of the massive effect of these authoritative structures on one’s behaviour. Stanley Milgram, a psychologist from Yale University, conducted a series of famous experiments on human behaviour and our willingness to harm others. The study found that under the pressure of authoritative figures, individuals are fully capable of harming others, even when they are fully aware of the harm they create. This is similar to that of individuals in crimes against humanity. I am not asserting that they had no knowledge about the gravity of their actions – instead, the response – to obey orders – is, however regrettable, one that we cannot fault them for in law. Stories of immense moral courage should be celebrated but are not realistic expectations to exact on all involved. Individuals who commit crimes against humanity cannot be held fully responsible for them – particularly if they were following orders from their superiors.

Apart from the organizations committing these crimes against humanity, many point to the communities and individuals of nations committing these crimes, arguing that these individuals were complicit in these atrocities, and that their inaction equates to an endorsement of these crimes. However, I posit that members of these communities cannot be fully held responsible for these crimes, regardless of complicity due to the presence of strong ideologies influencing their actions and decisions. Crimes against humanity, particularly those in war, are often committed by leaders and their organizations against support in terms of ideology, which are accompanied by pervasive personality cults. These ideologies can be tied to deeply personal aspects of one’s identity, including race and religion. The exclusionary nature of identity is often weaponized by these leaders, to justify and legitimise the use of power of these leaders, even in crimes against humanity, with the apparent involuntary submission of members of communities. The most prominent example in this case would be Nazi Germany, responsible for the Holocaust, arguably the worst genocide in crime against humanity in the history of mankind. Many therefore hold Germans fully responsible for the atrocities of the Holocaust, pointing to the many instances in which the German people could have stopped Adolf Hitler – from voting him out of various elections, boycotting his conscription laws, and refusing to support his paramilitaries which facilitated the gathering of innocent Jewish civilians. However, while the Germans accept responsibility for their actions, we cannot condemn them for inaction. Adolf Hitler was highly skilful at driving a schism between Germans and Jews, justifying and lending credence to the systematic killing of the Jews. Many Germans, though now realizing the weight of their actions, were genuinely convinced and swayed by Hitler’s rhetoric, and believe in the Holocaust and its aims. In this light, I strongly believe that individuals in communities cannot be held fully responsible for crimes against humanity as they may have been influenced by ideology to justify these atrocities.

Ultimately, crimes against humanity are highly regrettable and all nations around the world, regardless of political interests, should actively aim to prevent these atrocities from occurring again. However, with regard to the adjudication of responsibility of these atrocities, we should avoid our knee-jerk reactions of instantly condemning individuals involved as pure evil. Instead, we should seek to understand these individuals with the empathy that they lacked and understand the factors that shaped the way they view the world. Through analysing individuals at three different levels of complexity and involvement, as well as the different factors and conditions that may influence these individuals, my stance is clear – we cannot hold individuals fully responsible for crimes against humanity.

Kenneth Hoh (18-O5)


  1. I completely agree. My father going through similar accusations has been considered to have committed these crimes therefore inadmissable to Canada. What they fail to see is that whether this was happening or not, he decided to leave a system that was doing this to his own people. His decision to leave and not participate should speak louder than words! The country he fled was Nicaragua where the same people who fought for freedom are witnessing what my father saw all those years ago.


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