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In November, the world community will commemorate the 60th anniversary of the start of the Nuremberg Trials. It is a fitting tribute to the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg to reaffirm its place in history as an advance of global justice. In brief, it offered the sanguine prospect that the perpetrators of war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and other human rights violations could be prosecuted and punished for their evil deeds, irrespective of where they occurred or who was involved. The net would be cast much wider in the future and include those with “command responsibility.” The Nuremberg Trials consisted of at least four distinct criminal proceedings in which the victorious Allies set up special “international” military courts at Nuremberg, the original site of the Nazi regime’s infamous anti-Semitic laws, and Tokyo, to prosecute leading Nazi and Japanese war criminals in the aftermath of World War II. The most well-known trial was that of some captured, high-ranking Nazis. Of the 22 defendants who actually stood trial, three were acquitted. Thus, the critic’s charge of “victor’s justice” often lodged against the trial’s fairness is arguably defeated. For, in defense of the primacy of the rule of law, in the words of Robert H. Jackson, the U.S. chief counsel for the prosecution: “The ultimate principle is that you must put no man on trial under the form of judicial proceedings, if you are not willing to see him freed if not proved guilty. If you are determined to execute a man in any case, there is no occasion for a trial. The world yields no respect to courts that are merely organized to convict.” These are not idle words. In contrast, recall the Nazi “People’s Courts,” which were clearly organized to convict. The Nuremberg Charter presented the list of charges, which may be brought against the defendants: war crimes, crimes against the peace, wars of aggression and crimes against humanity. These are now encoded as basic principles of international law by the United Nations (General Assembly Resolution 95, Section 1; December 1946). Originally, crimes against humanity like mass murder; forcible civilian population transfers (e.g., “ethnic cleansing”); and rife persecutions on racial, religious and/or political grounds were linked to crimes done in war. These charges may now be brought against the accused in times of both war and peace, irrespective of whether done to a state’s own citizens or to subjects of other states. The charter stands as a vehicle for the civilian ad hoc tribunals in the Hague, Netherlands, and in Arusha, Tanzania, for hearing cases of those accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity in the 1990s in the Balkans and in Rwanda, respectively. Most importantly, Nuremberg’s impact regarding the innovative idea of crimes against humanity is also traceable to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (Art. 7). Further, these charters include for the first time both widespread rape and torture as prosecutable crimes against humanity. ‘Largest murder trial in history’ Thus, the reach of Nuremberg into the 21st century has quickened the evolving body of international humanitarian and criminal law. In this vein, two other strands in Nuremberg’s core legacy ought to be noted. The first concerns genocide, and the other the laws of war in tandem with a dynamic human rights movement, or what philosophers call the just war tradition. Although the Holocaust became better known as a result of the judicial records at Nuremberg, the international community’s shock and outrage at the Nazi-engineered atrocities like the death and slave-labor camps became crystallized around what Winston Churchill once called “a crime without a name.” The lead prosecutor of the Einsatzgruppen at Nuremberg, Benjamin B. Ferencz, said he was presiding over “the largest murder trial in history.” And also, in direct response to the Holocaust, the United Nations passed the Genocide Convention (1948), one day before it promulgated the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The term “genocide” was a neologism coined to refer to the Nazi’s “final solution to the Jewish question.” Unfortunately, naming something and giving it legal status are insufficient to prevent genocidal events, as Rwanda and Darfur, Sudan, indicate. To heal the searing fissures from World War II and to prevent similar atrocities and contempt for a universal morality from being repeated, the United Nations was formed. In its charter, it promised to become the world’s main forum for promoting human rights and for establishing moral and legal standards governing how nations and individuals ought to properly treat one another. To be certain, its track record in this regard leaves much for warranted criticism. Yet it has sponsored constructive normative or ideal values and customary rules to be incorporated into documents like the Geneva Conventions concerning how combatants ought to conduct themselves with respect to noncombatants, innocent civilians and toward one another. Finally, if the most important purpose of the Nuremberg Trials was to bring major war criminals to justice, then its heritage is certainly evident in the upcoming trial of Saddam Hussein for his “command responsibility” in the many crimes against humanity that his Baathist regime is accused of committing. Alan S. Rosenbaum is author of Prosecuting Nazi War Criminals (Westview 1993) and editor of Is the Holocaust Unique? (Westview 2d ed. 2001). He has written one, and edited two, other books on basic rights and the rule of law.

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