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So, there is a man, Gibril Massaquoi, on trial in Finland for things he allegedly did during the Liberian Civil War. Among the charges is murder.

Here's the thing: in war, it is generally to be hoped that everyone involved has premeditated ending the lives of their opposite number. This would make every soldier ever to serve in war a murderer according to civilian rules.

So, what is the cutoff for soldiers in an active war to commit murder?

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    Is the charge really murder and nothing else? Murder in war is typically named "war crime" (eg when you kill civilians)
    – PMF
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 20:06
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    "murderer according to civilian rules" No, murder is the unlawful, premeditated killing of a human. The key is unlawful. Merely killing somebody isn't murder, it's homicide. Capital punishment, self defense, legal euthanasia, fatal medical mistakes, are all homicide, but not murder.
    – user71659
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 20:13
  • @PMF The news says the charges include "murder, aggravated rape, aggravated war crimes and aggravated human rights violations"
    – HAEM
    Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 20:18
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    I cannot provide a complete answer with references and quotes in accordance with international rules of war, but shooting an armed enemy soldier in the midst of a firefight or causing accidental civilian casualties is definitely not murder. If they wave a white flag and lay down their rifle and you shoot them it most probably would be. Anything past that, (executing a captured POW, civilian, etc.) definitely is... Commented Jan 10, 2023 at 20:45
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    It's likely that he killed a civilian in a manner that was uncalled for by the laws and customs of War. While it is given that civilian deaths are going to happen in a war, all belligerents have a duty to ensure that civilians casualties are minimized. If Massaquoi was killing civilians in a manner that was not necessary for his duties as a solider, than it would be murder. The killing of enemy combatants by military personnel is not considered murder by most legal systems.
    – hszmv
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 11:52

1 Answer 1

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As with all international law, it depends on "who says so": I will draw on the Geneva Convention Relative to the Protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War as most relevant. Article 3 distinguishes combatants from non-combatants, saying that

Persons taking no active part in the hostilities, including members of armed forces who have laid down their arms and those placed hors de combat by sickness, wounds, detention, or any other cause, shall in all circumstances be treated humanely, without any adverse distinction founded on race, colour, religion or faith, sex, birth or wealth, or any other similar criteria.

They then specifically prohibit murder:

Violence to life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture

but this only applies to non-combatants. There simply is no prohibition against killing combatants (unsurprisingly). Liberia acceded to that treaty, so for instance if one of their soldiers murdered a non-combatant, in principle they should try that soldier for the crime of murder under Liberian law. If some random dude (not a soldier) murders anybody in Liberia, in principle they should try him for the crime. Soldier may kill enemy soldier, even when the killed soldier is sleeping and poses no immediate threat to the soldier who kills him. That's the nature of war.

In the case of Massaquoi, he might have been prosecuted by Sierra Leone, but negotiated immunity in Sierra Leone in exchange for information on his RUF colleagues. There was no such tribunal or arrangement w.r.t. his involvement in Liberia, and Finland opted to conduct an extraterritorial trial based on war crimes (not the killing of combatants). His acquittal was based on the lack of evidence that it was him that did the reported deeds (I don't know if there is a publicly available judgment, but it is 850 pages and in Finnish, so toivotan onnea projektille.

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  • Are you sure sleeping people count as combatants?
    – OrangeDog
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 15:11
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    @OrangeDog Every story I have heard and every opinion I have researched finds that killing a sleeping soldier is legal. Have you heard a contrary opinion? (or are you suggesting that "combatant" is not actually the line which distinguishes a legal from an illegal homicide in wartime?)
    – Cort Ammon
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 15:21
  • I have not heard any stories or opinions about killing confirmed sleeping soldiers. Can you share any of this research? It seems difficult to be taking "active part in the hostilities" when you're asleep.
    – OrangeDog
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 15:23
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    @OrangeDog I felt that point deserved its own question.
    – R.M.
    Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 16:40
  • "There simply is no prohibition against killing combatants (unsurprisingly)."... Is that strictly true, or would a soldier who killed without having been ordered into combat (e.g. he was an undeployed reserve or trainee) be guilty? Commented Jan 11, 2023 at 18:00

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