|This Week in American History
October 1 - October 8, 1946
October 1 marked the 60th anniversary of the judgment at the Nuremberg Tribunal, the first of the trials of Nazi war criminals, which have defined for the ensuing period the nature of crimes against peace and crimes against humanity. Ironically, as pointed out by law professor David Luban in an article on the blog balkanization on Sept. 23, this anniversary occurs at virtually the same time that the Congress of the United States has ratified the evisceration of those principles, and those of the Geneva Conventions.
In arguing for the Cheney-Bush Administration's policies of torture and Presidential prerogative, as enshrined in the "compromise" military detainee legislation passed by the Congress last week, its adherents have been at pains to emphasize that the U.S. must assert its national interests, as against so-called international law. Yet. up until this vote, it was actually U.S. standards of conductestablished by President Abraham Lincoln's Lieber Code during the U.S. Civil War, and the insistence of U.S. Nuremberg Prosecutor Robert Jackson, especiallythat defined the standards of international law in the area of war.
No one was more eloquent in asserting the Nuremberg principles than Justice Jackson, who insisted that the standards established thereby must apply not just to the "little people" who commit them, but to those men of great power who conspired to have those crimes carried out by their underlings. In his opening address to the Tribunal, which opened in November of 1945, he made this ringing charge:
"The real complaining party at your bar is Civilization.... The refuge of the defendants can only be their hope that International Law will lag so far behind the moral sense of mankind that conduct which is crime in the moral sense must be regarded as innocent in law. Civilization asks whether law is so laggard as to be utterly helpless to deal with crimes of this magnitude by criminals of this order of importance...."
Clearly, the Bush Administration would have opposed Justice Jackson's view, as well as the vote by the United Nations General Assembly on April 12, 1950, to enshrine the Nuremberg Principles in international law. The United States not only supported that vote, but championed it.
We include here the Principles of the Nuremberg Tribunal, in full:
Any person who commits an act which constitute a crime under international law is responsible therefor and liable to punishment.
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.
The fact that a 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.
The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.
Any person charged with a crime under international law has the right to a fair trail on the facts and law.
The crimes hereinafter set out are punishable as crimes under international law:
a. Crimes against peace:
i. Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a 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 or deportation to slave-labor, or for any other purpose, of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war, of 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:
Murder, extermination, enslavement deportation and other inhuman acts done against any civilian population, or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds, when such acts are done or such persecutions are carried on in execution of or in connection with any crime against peace or any war crime.
Complicity in the commission of a crimes against peace, war crimes, or a crime against humanity as set forth in Principle VI is a crime under international law.