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Nuremberg's Legacy Lives on in Struggle for International Justice

Deanne CorbettNovember 18, 2005

The Nuremberg trials of 22 Nazi leaders opened on Nov. 20, 1945. Sixty years later, Nuremberg's legacy is apparent in the development of modern international law, even if the Americans are no longer setting the tone.

Justice for the Nazis began in Nuremberg's Courtroom 600Image: AP

The city of Nuremberg today is practically synonymous with the milestone in international justice that was the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal. Set up by the Allies at the end of World War II, the tribunal headed by American Chief Justice Robert Jackson tried 22 Nazi elites, including Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess and Joachim von Ribbentrop. The trials lasted for over a year, and resulted in 12 death sentences being handed down. Göring was convicted, but committed suicide.

Nürnberger Kriegsverbrecher Prozess Hermann Göring
Hermann Göring stands in the prisoner's dock at the Nuremberg War Crimes TribunalImage: AP

Nuremberg was revolutionary in many respects, not least because of the advances it made in protecting the rights of the accused.

"We must never forget that the record on which we judge these defendants today is the record on which history will judge us tomorrow," Jackson said at the opening session. "To pass these defendants a poisoned chalice is to put it to our own lips as well."

Nuremberg was the first time that war crimes were tried before an international tribunal. It was clear from Jackson's approach that the Americans, in particular, hoped the tribunal would serve as a model for a future international justice system with a permanent international criminal court to handle cases of genocide and crimes against humanity.

From proponent to opponent

Ironically, in the years that followed, the United States became the biggest force of resistance to the establishment of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, said Uwe Wesel, professor emeritus in civil law and history of law at Berlin's Free University.

Der internationale Strafgerichtshof in den Haag
The International Criminal Court in The HagueImage: ICC

"At the time of the Nuremberg trials, the United Nations set up an international law commission, but this commission has had to deal with repeated stumbling blocks," Wesel said. "The Cold War came, and the United States started to think twice about participating, because of the fear that Americans could also be tried for war crimes. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the US no longer had to fear being drawn into a war with the Soviet Union, they continued to hesitate."

Given US obstinacy to the codifying of international law, the fact that the ICC now exists is a "miracle," Wesel said.

"The hostility of the US toward international criminal justice has only been strengthened under the Bush administration, resulting in the passing of the American Service-Member's Protection Act, which allows the US to use violence to free American servicemen and women being held in custody by the ICC if necessary," he said.

Setting legal precedents

Nevertheless, experts see in Nuremberg the roots for all subsequent human rights trials, from the prosecution of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to the trials of those accused of genocide in Rwanda, to the trial of former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

However, the decision to try Saddam at a special court in Iraq has been seen by some experts as a failure to learn from the lessons of Nuremberg. In 1945, the Allies were criticized by legal scholars who said it was inappropriate for the victors to mete out justice to those they'd conquered.

Wolfgang Schomburg, the only German judge to sit on the UN tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, said the Iraqi court, set up during the US occupation, also had some features of victors' justice, and that a better solution would have been to bring his case before an international court.

Schomburg ist Richter am UN-Kriegsverbrechertribunal
Judge Wolfgang SchomburgImage: DPA

"The trial would have more legitimacy if the case were being heard before an international tribunal," Schomburg said. "Such crimes are always crimes committed against the civilized world, so the answer should also follow from the civilized world, meaning an international tribunal with a more distanced, neutral view."

Germany's lessons

Schomburg is living proof that nations whose citizens commit heinous crimes against humanity can, with the help of fair judicial proceedings, come to terms with the past, and move on. Though he sees himself as an international judge, he is aware that his German nationality has presented him with a unique opportunity to show the world that Germany has returned to normalcy.

"I'm celebrating the fact that I have concluded my first four years of tenure at the tribunal without one single staff member ever questioning how I, as a German, can act in this tribunal," Schomburg said. "On the other hand, I am personally very often moved when I quote from judgments made at Nuremberg, to see how we are always being confronted with the past and the lessons learned by German society."

For his part, Schomburg has not given up hope that the United States will one day return to the path it embarked on during the Nuremberg trials by endorsing the International Criminal Court.

"I'm always an optimist," Schomburg said. "I think the US has made an incredible contribution to the rule of law, to fundamental rights. Eventually, the US won't be able to do anything but ratify the ICC, because they will see it is in their own interest. Otherwise, it is difficult to see how they can ask us to fight terrorism with civilized means, but not allow international jurisdiction to fight against crimes committed by terrorists."