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war crimes tracing criminals
war crimes tracing criminals

Nedžiba Salihović, of Srebrenica, Yugoslavia, screams at a United Nations soldier in a refugee camp in Tuzla, Bosnia, 1995. Over 7,000 men were executed as the UN Safe Haven in Srebrenica was overrun by Serb forces, and thousands of bodies were found in mass graves around Srebrenica. Image: Courtesy of Ron Haviv, VII


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Investigating War Crimes: Tracing War Criminals

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Holding individuals criminally accountable under international law for their actions in armed conflict is a relatively recent phenomenon, with the concept of war crimes being codified at the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries. As famously stated in the 1946 Nuremberg judgment: “Crimes against international law are committed by men, not by abstract entities, and only by punishing individuals who commit such crimes can the provisions of international law be enforced.” Nevertheless, the prosecution of war criminals is still a challenge today, with few perpetrators being convicted in court, and often only when a conflict has ended. Since the Second World War, there have been hundreds of war crimes trials in both international and domestic courts, but this number only includes a small number of successful prosecutions, involving very few high-level leaders. Journalists have an important role in uncovering the identity and responsibility of war criminals, and increasing the likelihood that they may one day be brought to justice.

In the 20th century, journalists started to cover major war crimes trials, such as at Nuremberg Tribunals in the aftermath of the Nazi Holocaust. Journalists have subsequently covered investigations into identifying those responsible for war crimes. Some examples include Seymour Hersh in his coverage of the My Lai massacre in the Vietnam war; David Rohde, and Ed Vulliamy in the Bosnian war; Théo Englebert on a Rwandan genocide suspect; Allan Nairn in East Timor and Guatemala; Priyamvatha Panchapagesan in Sri Lanka. Investigating war criminals often involves prolonged reporting over multiple years.

With the availability of increasing amounts of data, journalistic investigations in the 21st century have become increasingly collaborative, sometimes involving multiple news agencies, and research specialists. The development of technology has also increased the amount of open source and technical reporting, to include the use of satellite imagery to locate military units. The presentation of this work also increasingly draws on multiple reporting mediums, including interactive graphics, text, photographs and video. While reporting on war criminals remains a challenging and specialized field that continues to evolve, there are some key tips and tools that can help.

Tips and Tools

Is There a Potential Story?

By their nature, war crimes are serious and illegal transgressions, so they are often carried out secretly or surreptitiously. Multiple channels of information can start to suggest whether here is a story to report.

  • Social Media

Social media is a key means for finding leads, from user-generated materials by civilians and victims, as well as perpetrators, and leaked government documents. Sources can also be found and cultivated from social media.

  • Sources

Building a strong personal network of sources that can be nurtured over the course of a career is necessary. One independent journalist covering Myanmar, Emily Fishbein, has a daily ritual in which she reviews/updates a personal source database.

  • Civil Society Organizations (CSOs)

CSOs are staffed by local people who live and operate in the local area, and therefore often have an in-depth understanding of what is happening on the ground. These organizations can also be really useful for sourcing, helping journalists to find victims, witnesses, and sometimes even the history of the perpetrators involved.

  • Breaking News

The daily news, including government propaganda outlets, and local language media can give important clues, such as major new offensives or troop movements, or unverified claims of atrocities. At the end of the week, review which breaking news stories might warrant further time and investigation.

Pre-research and Pitching

If there is a potential story about a perpetrator or atrocity, journalists need to consider if further investigation is: feasible, verifiable, valuable, timely, and constitutes original work.

  • Feasibility

Are you able to reach the victims, eyewitnesses, and perpetrators either physically or online. Will the sourcing be good enough?

  • Verifiable

Reporters need to have access to multiple streams of sourcing, which are independent of each other. Multiple forms of data are also good. Like many investigative journalists, legal expert Reed Brody advises that documents are the gold standard. He used those to great effect, for example, in his investigation of Chadian dictator Hissene Habre.

  • Valuable

Is the story of public interest? Will it offer insight into the workings and modus operandi of an armed organization or will it be possible to identify the perpetrators? And practically speaking, is there also an editor who is interested in working on the story?

  • Timely

Timely news is important; as is being the first to report it. But just as critical, a story can suffer if it’s done too soon, before the facts are developed enough to warrant in-depth coverage.

  • Original Work

In a similar vein, make sure no one has already reported the story — or something similar — you’re interested in covering. That said, there might be an important angle about an incident or atrocity that has not yet been covered or explored sufficiently. For example in the year following Russia’s 2022 invasion of Ukraine, the Washington Post, Reuters, and The New York Times all published original and important work on the weaponization of rape by Russian soldiers as more evidence came to light.

Collecting Information/Verification

It is important to recognize that, at any stage, it could become apparent that the story you’re investigating won’t be strong enough or is based on false assumptions, or pure rumor. In that case, journalists must be willing to let the story go, or archive it for the future. For example, in 2018, a colleague and I first started looking at the issue of military-backed militias in Rakhine, Myanmar, but we were unable to get a clear understanding of what was happening. However, four years later, after the situation had developed, this earlier effort eventually became an investigative piece tracking the development of monk-led militias. Our reporting tied these armed groups to the sacking and burning of 100 villages and other deadly attacks on civilians that the UN has called probable war crimes.

Patience and understanding the big picture are important. Even if you have important information, it’s imperative to wait until the story is strong enough before going public. Mistakes cannot be made. This can be difficult when a journalist has grown attached to the story, and feels passionate about shedding light on potentially criminal activity. Be methodical, detailed, and exhaustive in your research.

On the other hand, don’t overcook the story. War criminals often hold positions of significant power. The longer a journalist lingers, especially when conducting field work, the more you run the risk of compromising your safety and those of your sources. What’s more, unnecessary delays also offer any perpetrators the opportunity to cover their tracks. This can include arresting or killing key figures implicating them, including eyewitnesses, other sources, as well as journalists. Timing and risk-calibration is vital.


Collecting human sourcing needs to come from multiple, independent streams. This can be first-hand accounts from victims, witnesses and, in the best case, perpetrators. Former officials close to power structures can also be used, and are often an important source of information, especially for verification. For example, in this story a military officer who defected helped to confirm the units involved in mass slaughter in the Sagaing region of Myanmar.

Second-hand accounts can be sought from sources like medics, local civil actors, human rights specialists, and other authorities who have interacted with victims. This can involve dozens of human sources. It is important to corroborate as much as possible given that even assuming that people are speaking truthfully, psychological research shows that the reliability of eyewitness testimony and victims’ memories are often overestimated in the investigation and prosecution of crimes, including by the victims and eyewitnesses themselves. Documentary evidence, such as military orders, can be incredibly valuable in adding weight to testimony. For more information, see this guide’s chapter on sourcing and interviewing.

war crimes tracing war criminals Bucha Ukraine Russian military occupation

Ruslan Kravchenko, (center), head of the Bucha District Prosecutor’s Office Kyiv Region, and his team investigate possible war crimes in the city of Bucha. Kyiv, Ukraine, 2022. One of the victims found was shot dead and then decapitated, according to investigators. Image: Courtesy of Ron Haviv, VII

Local Organizations

Local organizations such as CSOs can help identify victims, eyewitnesses, and the histories of perpetrators. They can also help with logistics. Getting access to hard-to-reach areas, and maneuvering through potentially dangerous checkpoints are often only possible with the assistance of local guides or experts. That was the case in our reporting on forced recruitment by armed organizations, which took place in the middle of a conflict and full internet shutdown in Rakhine State, Myanmar.


Propaganda can be very useful in piecing together parts of a story. Obviously, government propaganda is unlikely to report a war crime. On the contrary, they are likely to push stories of troops making donations in the community, etc. But these planted stories can be inadvertently revealing. For example, they might offer key details about which unit is based in which town, as well as the names and ranks of the commanders involved, with their pictures. It is important to read such material with a critical eye, and not to fall prey to unintentionally picking up or adopting propaganda narratives in one’s reporting.

Technology and Open Sourcing

Direct testimony can be matched with data such as satellite imagery, government documents, and independent reports. Text can also be merged with graphics, photography and video.

Investigative teams and newsrooms have also used open source tools such as facial recognition to verify or trace war criminals. Photos can be used to geolocate people or groups. Algorithms can be used to analyze massive troves of data. And specific lessons learned can be learned from certain events, like the takeaways Syrian journalists have gained from investigating Russian war crimes in their country. However, some of these tactics must be carefully assessed for risk. For example, listening in on police or military communications could be considered a crime in some countries or designated war zones.


Some of this work can become quite specialized, and collaboration can be an important part of conducting in-depth war crimes investigations. These partners can include specialist NGOs, legal teams and other investigative groups looking into potential war crimes and human rights abuses in specific geographies. For more on this, see GIJN’s guide to collaboration in journalism.

Protecting Sources and Colleagues

It is critical that sources and victims are protected, have informed consent about the use of information, and are interviewed with sensitivity. In many circumstances, victims remain in areas where perpetrators can do them future harm. Also, victims might not understand how journalism works or who they are speaking to. You need to clearly explain who you are, which organization you work with, for what purpose you are gathering data, and how you will use the data and present them in your story. You need to explicitly cover the risks they are taking in participating. You might also need to explain or educate them on best practices for digital security.

For example, if a source is sending you photos depicting an atrocity, they might need to delete these pictures and any chat histories after speaking with you. What constitutes on and off the record should not be applied to victims or vulnerable sources in the same way a journalist would with a government official or a prominent political dissenter. Even if a source agrees to an on-the-record conversation, they should be given the right to retract their identity or update their statements to your reporting at any time. If they have given permission to be named, both reporters and editors need to consider if this is a sensible idea, given the security situation and the experience of the person.

Case Studies

Massacre in Myanmar

Massacre in Myanmar is one story from a Reuters series called Myanmar Burning that won a Pulitzer Prize looking at the Rohingya genocide from multiple angles. The story covered a massacre of Rohingya civilians amid a general cover-up and denials from the Myanmar military about their actions in the region. The story is rare in that it includes direct perpetrator testimony with photo evidence and led to the Myanmar military taking the unprecedented step of imprisoning several of their soldiers in a rare act of recognition. The reporting was conducted by the Reuters Myanmar Bureau, after which two members of the team, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were imprisoned for 18 months.

war crimes tracing criminals Myanmar Rohingya massacre

Reuters produced a series of stories on the massacre of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar and the broad cover-up of the atrocity by the county’s military. Image: Screenshot, Reuters

Tracking Down a Former Nazi

This television news broadcast is an original piece of investigative reporting that tracked down and interviewed a major Nazi war criminal living in Argentina more than 50 years after World War II. It caused a public uproar and resulted in Argentina extraditing Erich Priepke to Italy, where he was sentenced to life in prison. The ABC news investigation also involved using archival records from multiple jurisdictions to build evidence that this individual was a war criminal.

To Catch a Dictator

This book by human rights lawyer Reed Brody, “To Catch a Dictator: The Pursuit and Trial of Hissène Habré,” was an 18-year-long effort to hold the former dictator of Chad accountable for war crimes. It details the painstaking work of collecting evidence from victims, investigators and legal experts, facing many obstacles and constant threats to life. His work contributed to the Extraordinary African Chambers finding Habre guilty of war crimes, crimes against humanity and torture, resulting in a life sentence.

Thu Thu AungThu Thu Aung is a Pulitzer Prize-winning Burmese journalist at Reuters. She is currently an RISJ Journalist Fellow (2023) at Oxford University. In her career she has covered ethnic armed conflicts, drug trafficking, human rights abuses and the Rohingya genocide.



Ron Haviv, VII FoundationRon Haviv is a director and co-founder of The VII Foundation and co-founder of VII Photo Agency. In the last three decades, Haviv has covered more than 25 conflicts and worked in over 100 countries. His work, which has won numerous awards, is featured in museums and galleries worldwide.

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