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Crimes against humanity are atrocities committed on a grand scale, often during war, and directed at a civilian population. They are prosecuted by either national or international tribunals.
The first such trial was in Nuremberg, Germany in 1947. The Nuremberg trials were prosecutions of the most prominent Nazi Party leaders alive after World War II, people responsible for the death and displacement of millions throughout Europe, and their trials were international events because they implicated humanity itself. Unfortunately, these were not the world's last woes by any stretch of the imagination. The definition of crimes against humanity has since expanded as such prosecutions continue.
In 1945, the United States and allied nations developed the Agreement for the Prosecution and Punishment of the Major War Criminals of the European Axis and Charter of the International Military Tribunal (IMT). They gave the following definition of crimes against humanity:
"Crimes against humanity: murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against civilian populations, before or during the war; or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated."
Since then, the definition of these crimes has expanded to include rape and torture, according to the Crimes of War Education Project, a collaboration of journalists, lawyers and scholars raising public awareness of the laws of war. But the organization makes an important point -- crimes against humanity are distinct from crimes of war.
To some extent, crimes against humanity overlap with genocide and war crimes but they are distinct. Unlike genocide, crimes against humanity do not require an intent to "destroy in whole or in part," but only target a given group and carry out a policy of "widespread or systematic" violations. Another important distinction -- they not only apply in the context of war but in times of peace too.
Although low-level soldiers may be involved in carrying out horrifying acts on orders, the targets for prosecution of crimes against humanity are generally higher-ups. People with the power to command other humans to torture, rape, murder, enslave are those who face this charge.
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