Alette Smeulers is conducting research on international crimes, such as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. These are forms and manifestations of collective violence which cause immense human suffering and threaten international peace and security. Knowledge on the origins and causes of  international crimes is necessary in order to be able to fight this type of criminality effectively and demands an inter- and multidisciplinary approach. Due to her inter- and multidisciplinary background, training and approach Alette Smeulers has acquired a unique expertise. In her research she focuses on the causes of these types of crimes, the perpetrators and the criminal prosecution thereof.

Perpetrators of international crimes

The gassings in Auschwitz, the abuse at Abu Ghraib, the mass rapes in the DRC, the murders in South Africa, the mass graves in Srebrenica, the terrible poison attacks in Iraq and more recently in Syria. Why do people commit such atrocities? Who are these people? How can anyone be so cruel?

International crimes are so atrocious that we instinctively distance ourselves from the perpetrators and prefer to see them as cruel and sadistic psychopaths – very different from us, ordinary people. A very small minority of the perpetrators are indeed sadists and psychopaths but most perpetrators are ordinary and law abiding citizens who commit their crimes on orders of the state. In extreme circumstances such as war ordinary people can be transformed into perpetrators of extreme atrocities. Within this transformation process a number of phases can be distinguished: the preparation phase, the initiation phase, the habituation and routinization phase. It turns out that almost all perpetrators are shocked, disgusted or horrified after they have tortured, raped or killed for the first time. The way they respond to their own horror and disgust is decisive and crucial in the transformation process. Do they decide to never obey such an order again despite the danger such a decision might put them in. Or – much more likely – do they start to rationalize and justify their own behaviour. If they choose to do the latter then they will do anything to soothe their own conscience: they will convince themselves that they did not do anything wrong and made the right choice to obey the order. They will convince themselves that the victims deserved their fate and that if they would not have obeyed the orders others would have done so. Once perpetrators start to rationalize and justify their behaviour they will not find any means to resist the subsequent order to torture, maim or kill and will feel compelled to obey the next order to maim, torture or kill. The more they do so the more they will feel the need to rationalize and justify their obedience but along the way they became better and better at it and after a while they will start to get used to the violence and will be able maim, torture and kill without any further pangs of conscience.

Not all perpetrators are the same though. Some perpetrators are powerful political leaders, such as heads of state or leaders of rebel forces. These perpetrators initiate the crimes. Others organize the violence and execute the repressive, violent or even genocidal policies developed by the political leaders. They are the bureaucrats. Still others physically execute the policies and maim, kill or rape other people with their own hands. These are the low ranking foot soldiers – the hands-on soldiers who have no power and just execute the orders given to them. Perpetrators differ in their motives too. Some are driven by an ideology as for instance the radical extremist who is driven forward by his own hatred or the devoted warrior who is a loyal soldier convinced that he has to obey whatever order he is given. Others are driven by self-interest. Periods of political violence are often a form of social engineering providing new opportunities for people in the lower echelons of society to make themselves a career. These perpetrators take advantage of the suffering of the victims. Others are just followers – people who do not lead, nor take their own decisions but just follow the flow. Some perpetrators are forced to cooperate. In total we can distinguish fourteen different types of perpetrators: (1) the Criminal Mastermind; (2) the Fanatic; (3) the Careerist; (4) the Devoted Warrior; (5) the Professional; (6) the True Believer; (7) the Holy Warrior; (8) the Avenger; (9) the Profiteer; (10) the criminal; (11) the Predator (12) the deranged; (13) the follower; and (14) the compromised perpetrator. Periods of mass violence occur during periods of political upheaval; when a repressive or genocidal policy is developed and the group dynamics between various types of perpetrators lead them to collectively commit atrocities (read more).

Causes of international crimes

When the atrocities committed by the Nazis during the Second World War were revealed, states pledged to ensure that this would never happen again. After WWII universal and inalienable human rights were enshrined in international law and are nowadays universally recognized as binding international rules. Many states however merely pay lip service to these rights and use political force and violence to subdue the political opposition or even entire population. According to a report of the World Health Organization (WHO, 2002), more than 191 million people died in the twentieth century alone due to forms and manifestations of collective violence. Such forms of violence are often politically motivated and initiated by political leaders who want to gain or maintain political power. The actual physical violence is  committed in a social context in which the use of such violence is justified and legitimized by the initiators thereof. Victims are dehumanized and often labelled as dangerous enemies who have to be tortured and killed in order to protect the country. During periods of political turmoil extreme methods are considered necessary in order to protect a country, society or way of life. Propaganda is used to mobilize the people and the police and army are asked to restore law and order. In such circumstances the most extreme atrocities are sometimes committed by people who sincerely believe they are doing the right thing.

Each country in which international crimes have been committed needs to be studied as a unique case. Nevertheless there are a few common factors and features which can help us to understand why and when international crimes are committed. International crimes are often committed in states which are characterized by political turmoil. This can either be a war; a civil war or a political crisis. Leaders of states which use political violence are often authoritarian and support extreme and radical ideologies. Such ideologies often exclude certain groups within the population and justify the use of violence. Privileged minority groups within the society are often blamed for all misfortunes of that particular society and then attacked. The population is made to believe that with the exclusion or even extermination of a certain group the problems within the country would be solved. The media are often used to spread propaganda amongst the population which justifies the force and violence used.

In extreme cases the entire state bureaucracy can be changed into a huge extermination machine as was the case in Nazi Germany. Political leaders and power holders justify and legitimize the political measures, the state bureaucrats organize the violence and the foot soldiers physically execute the policy by maiming, torturing and killing their fellow citizens. They are the low ranking soldiers at the bottom of the state hierarchy and often have the legal obligation to obey the orders of their superiors. Because the state orders to commit the crimes which are supported by state authorities and propaganda machine many perpetrators believe they are doing the right thing.

International Criminal Prosecution

The trials at Nuremberg and Tokyo marked the birth of an international criminal justice system. It was the very first time that individuals were held criminally responsible for the crimes they committed by an international criminal tribunal. Adolf Hitler, Josef Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler all committed suicide before they could be apprehended and thus managed to avoid being prosecuted and sentenced by the International Military Tribunal (IMT). Twenty-two other Nazi leaders including Herman Goering, Rudolf Hess and Albert Speer were indicted and charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity and crimes against peace and were tried at Nuremberg. After the trial which lasted less than a year 3 suspects were acquitted and 19 suspects were convicted. Of those convicted 12 were sentenced to death, 3 were sentenced to life imprisonment while 4 others were sentenced to a determinate prison sentence (between 10 and 20 years). Six months after the Nuremberg trial started the Tokyo trial in which the Japanese leaders were prosecuted and sentenced started. This trial lasted 2.5 years and 25 suspects were convicted.

The crimes committed during the war in former Yugoslavia (since 1991) and the genocide in Rwanda (1994) led to the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) by the United Nations Security Council. These two tribunals have prosecuted over 150 suspects. Amongst the people indicted are the most important leaders such as Milosevic (who died during the trial), Karadzic and Mladic. These two tribunals have tried many cases maturing international criminal law into a fully developed field of law. On the 1st  July 2002 the International Criminal Court (ICC) became operational and in 2012 Thomas Lubanga was the very first person to be convicted by this court. Lubanga was found guilty of recruiting and using child soldiers in the DRC. Next to these tribunals, international criminal courts and tribunals have been set up to try international crimes committed in Sierra Leone (since 1996), Cambodia (1975-1979), East Timor (1999) and Lebanon (2005).

In our count in May 2012 the nine international criminal courts and tribunals had prosecuted 172 cases in which 250 judges and 23 chief prosecutors were involved. All together they have indicted 745 suspects of which 356 were actually prosecuted. Of these 281 were found guilty. 34 suspects were still on trial, while 22 suspects were still at large (in May 2012). Since the establishment of Nuremberg 19 suspects have been sentenced to death and of these 17 were actually executed (Bormann was sentenced in absentia and later turned out to have died before the trial started while Goering committed suicide the day before he was supposed to be executed). 45 suspects were sentenced to life imprisonment and 217 were given a determinate sentence of – on average – 15.3 years. Criminal procedures before an international criminal court or tribunal last on average 4.9 years and the chance to be convicted once prosecution has started is 87% (read more). Within academic literature sentencing practices have been heavily criticized but our empirical analysis shows that in fact sentencing is consistent and predictable.

The convicted perpetrator is – on average – male (only 2 women were convicted so far), 40 years old and a member of a militarized unit and works for the state. Perpetrators of international crimes are generally considered to be enemies of mankind. International crimes are by definition forms and manifestations of collective violence. International criminal law is based on the concepts and principles developed in national criminal law. National criminal law however primarily deals with ordinary and common crime often committed by individuals or a small group rather than by large state authorities themselves. One might It consequently wonder whether international criminal law is sufficiently equipped to deal with forms and manifestations of collective violence (read more).

Case Studies

Auschwitz and the Holocaust

The horrible images of Auschwitz shortly after it was liberated by the Soviet army in 1945 shocked the world. How could this have happened? Who is responsible? How can people be so cruel? Till this very day many people still wonder about these question and the Holocaust is by many people still seen as the worst crime of the century. The extent to which the Holocaust was planned and organized and the industrialized way in which it was executed makes the Holocaust up till this day unique. But what about the perpetrators? How did they experience Auschwitz and who are they? Their crimes can without doubt be considered cruel and sadistic but were they all sadists? Some were but most weren’t. Most perpetrators were very ordinary and otherwise law abiding citizens who just followed orders and believed that by doing so they were protecting their country. Almost all perpetrators were shocked when they arrived in Auschwitz – which they considered – to use the words of one perpetrator – the ‘anus mundi’. But after their first initial shock they started to get used to the suffering of the victims and the horror surrounding the place. They dehumanized their victims and believed they deserved to be treated the way they were treated. They used euphemisms to describe their murderous tasks and focused on the technical perfection of their task rather than on the moral questions it might raise. In the eyes of the perpetrators only the leaders like Hitler, Himmler and Goering can be held responsible – they themselves were bound by their oath to Hitler and had to obey orders. Their only responsibility was towards their superiors and to fulfil their task. They believed they could not be held responsible for the overall outcome of the genocidal policy.

In his autobiography camp commander Hoess stated: ‘whether the reasons behind the extermination of the Jews was necessary or not was something on which I could not allow myself to form an opinion.’ Hoess merely considered himself responsible for fulfilling his duty and obeying the orders he was given: ‘I myself dared not admit to such doubt. In order to make my subordinates carry on with their task, it was psychologically essential that I myself appear convinced of the necessity for this gruesome harsh order. I had to exercise intense self-control in order to prevent my innermost doubts and feelings of oppression from becoming apparent. I had to appear cold and indifferent to events that must have wrung the heart of anyone possessed of human feelings. I might not even look away when afraid lest my natural emotions got the upper hand. I had to watch coldly while the mothers with laughing or crying children went into the gas chambers. My pity was so great that I longed to vanish from the scene; yet I might not show the slightest trace of emotion. I had to see everything – I had to do all this because I was the one to whom everybody looked.’[cited from R. Hoess, Commandant of Auschwitz, World, New York, 1959, p. 173).

Former Yugoslavia

The war in former Yugoslavia started in 1991. Especially the images of the emaciated men behind barbed wires in the prison camp in Omarska shocked the world. After WW II and the terrible images of Auschwitz political leaders had pledged that this would never happen again, but it did. It happened again and not just in a faraway place but in Europe’s backyard. This was something many had not believed to be possible. But it happened: the deliberate targeting and killing of civilians; ethnic cleansing; mass rapes and the killing of 7000 Muslim men in Srebrenica in July 1995 were just some of the many crimes committed during the war in former Yugoslavia. How could this have happened? After the death of Tito, Yugoslavia fell apart and a war broke out in which the many ethnic groups started to fight and kill each other. One of the explanations for this violence was that the Serbian government entered into a symbiotic relationship with criminals and paramilitary units which led to a normalization of crime and violence. While society usually inhibits people from criminal behaviour, in Serbia the process was reversed. Propaganda contained the neutralization techniques that allowed people to condone and even approve violent and criminal behaviour. The reversal of the moral order led to a situation in which war criminals such as Arkan were believed to be war heroes.


In 1994 in Rwanda just prior to the genocide the Tutsi minority was referred to as a violent and dangerous minority group which was about to commit genocide. In reality it were a group of Hutu extremists who planned to commit a genocide on the Tutsis. A propaganda machine was fully operational, thousands of machetes were ordered and lists of Tutsis who were to be killed were compiled. The plane crash in which president Habyarimana was killed in the night of 6 to 7 April 1994 was the final trigger to the genocide and the country changed overnight. Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana a moderate Hutu and 10 Belgian peacekeepers were killed, roadblocks were erected and Radio Milles Collines called out lists of Tutsis who had to be killed. Tutsis were considered to be the enemies and in order to protect the country and their nation the Hutus were required to kill all Tutsis. Killer groups consisting of 1-2 extremists, usually members of the Interahamwe and between 10-100 ordinary civilians set out to search, rape and kill Tutsis. The genocide lasted for 3 months in which 800.000 Tutsis and moderate Hutu’s were killed. Never before had so many people been killed so fast in a genocide and never before was the violence so cruel and the ordinary population so massively involved. In Rwanda we interviewed 24 perpetrators of the genocide and concluded that explanation of this extremely violent genocide can be found in the social dynamics and social interaction at the time of the genocide rather than in ethnic hatred.


Abu Ghraib and the War on Terror

The pictures of the mistreatment and sexual humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq shocked the American public when pictures of the abuse were shown on national television in the CBS program called 60 Minutes. Charles Graner, Lynddie England and Sabrina Harman featured prominently in these pictures. President George Bush immediately called the perpetrators who featured in the pictures rotten apples for whom there was no place in the American army. The violations committed at Abu Ghraib were however not just isolated incidents. The abuse was widespread and a direct consequence of the War on Terror launched by the US government after 9/11. The attack on the US killed almost 3000 people and had an enormous impact on the US in particular and the Western world in general. First of all because the attack came as a complete surprise and the chosen form was unprecedented in the world (hijacking planes and using these planes as bombs and to fly straight into buildings with the hijacked plane). The impact was also so immense because it was featured live on television how the second plane flew right into the second twin tower about 20 minutes after the first twin tower had been hit. The attack caught the US completely by surprise and George Bush and his administration wanted to do whatever was needed to arrest and punish those responsible for these attacks. In order to prevent such attacks in the future the War on Terror was launched. In our research we found that the abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib was an inevitable outcome of the War on Terror. The American administration wanted to do whatever was necessary to prevent future terrorist attacks on US soil and got the support of the population in this aim. Many alleged terrorists were arrested and put in prison and the Taliban in Afghanistan was attacked as being one of the close allies of Al Qaeda. The US government used neutralization techniques in its political rhetoric in order to justify and legitimize the violence. The rights of the prisoners were suspended with the excuse that they were illegal enemy combatants who had no rights. Recruits from the army were told that they had to fight terrorism and protect American values with all necessary means. In this atmosphere in which violence was gradually legitimized and the use of extreme measures officially condoned and approved, the measures which were meant to be used in extreme situations only became standard operating procedure. The fact that the abovementioned recruits took pictures of the abuse they committed is telling and showed that they were not aware that this behaviour is completely unacceptable and illegal.


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