by John Scales Avery
At the end of the Second World War, when the full extent of the atrocities that had been committed by the Nazi’s became known, it was decided to prosecute Nazi leaders for crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity (such as extermination camps).
There was disagreement about how such trials should be held, but after some debate between the Allied countries, it was agreed that 24 Nazi officials and military leaders would be tried by an International Tribunal in Nuremberg, Germany, a former center of Nazi politics.
There were originally 24 defendants, but two of them committed suicide. One was presumed dead but was nevertheless tried in absentia. Of the twenty-one remaining defendants, eleven were given the death penalty, eight were sentenced to long prison terms, and three were acquitted. Similar trials also took place in Japan.
In 1946 the United Nations General Assembly unanimously affirmed “the principles of international law recognized by the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and the judgment of the Tribunal”. The General Assembly also established an International Law Commission to formalize the Nuremberg Principles, and the result was the following list. The reader is invited to compare the crimes listed under Princicple VI with events that have been occuring for a number of years in the Middle East and in other parts of the world.
- Principle I: Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible, and therefore liable to punishment.
- Principle II: The fact that internal law does not impose a penalty for an act which constitutes a crime under international law does not relieve the person who committed the act from responsibility under international law.
- Principle III: The fact that the person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law acted as Head of State or responsible government official does not relieve him from responsibility under international law.
- Principle IV: The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him of responsibility under international law, provided that a moral choice was in fact possible for him.
- Principle V: Any person charged with a crime under international law has the right to a fair trial on the facts and law.
- Principle VI: The crimes hereinafter set out are punishable as crimes under international law:
a. Crimes against peace: (i) Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances; (ii) Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned under (i).
b. War crimes: Violations of the laws or customs of war which include, but are not limited to, murder, ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity.
c. Crimes against humanity: Atrocities and offenses, including but not limited to, murder, extermination, deportation, imprisonment, torture, rape, or other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds, whether or not in violation of the laws of the country where perpetrated.
• Principle VII: Complicity in the commission of a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity as set forth in Principle VI is a crime under international law.
The Nuremberg Principles are being used today as the basis for the International Criminal Court’s trials of individuals accused of genocide and war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and elsewhere.
The Principles throw an interesting light onto the status of soldiers. According to the Nuremberg Principles, it is not only the right, but also the duty of individuals to make moral and legal judgments concerning wars in which they are asked to fight. If a soldier participates in an illegal war (and all wars, apart from actions of the UN Security Council, are now illegal) then the soldier is liable to prosecution for violating international law. The fact that he or she was acting under orders is not an excuse. The training of soldiers is designed to remove the burdens of moral and legal responsibility from a soldier’s individual shoulders; but the Nuremberg Principles put these burdens squarely back where they belong – on the shoulders of the individual.
Although only 24 Nazi leaders were held responsible for their crimes at the Nuremberg Trials, Pronciples IV and VII make it clear that a much larger number of people could have been tried, since “complicity in the commission of a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity… is a crime under international law”. In other words, all adult citizens are breaking international law if they are complicit in the crimes committed by their governments.
All of us are responsible for what our governments do! I personally would like to extend the principle of individual responsibility still further: – I think that all of us are responsible for working actively, with all our strength, to solve the serious problems that are facing the world today, whether the problems are related to the abolition of war, to the prevention of poverty, the prevention of famine, or to saving the biosphere.
(John Scales Avery, Ph.D. is Associate Professor Emeritus at the H.C. Ørsted Institute, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. He received his training in theoretical physics and theoretical chemistry at M.I.T., the University of Chicago and the University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles both on scientific topics and on broader social questions. His most recent book is “Crisis 21: Civilization’s Crisis in the 21st Century)