International Justice

CJ354 Endicott College

The Nuremberg Precedent

This article has a thorough discussion of the Nuremberg Trials and their use – or rather failure to use – international law.  I think it is important to not only appreciate the trials as a crucial first step in the establishment of individual accountability and the move towards international justice, but also to understand the ways in which the trials fell short.  The decision to hold a trial at all was incredibly important in setting a precedent of retribution rather than revenge, but it should also be noted that there were several areas in which the trials did not conform to legal norms.  “Crimes against humanity,” one of the changes, was not defined until after the war.  There is absolutely no doubt that such crimes were committed, that people should be held responsible for those crimes, but use of retroactive law goes against legal and democratic principles dating back to the Magna Carta.  Justice requires a fair trial that conforms to legal standards, but the use of ex post facto laws is complex in the case of the Nuremberg trials.  If an atrocity is so extreme that international law has not officially defined it, should it not be punished?  Absolutely not.  There seems to be no choice but to invoke a naturalist use of international law, defining the law by what’s inherently right and wrong rather than by what’s codified.  However, one must also consider that one of the most important purposes and goals of prosecution is deterrence of future crimes.  If perpetrators are not aware that their actions are in direct violation of an international law, that they can and will be prosecuted, there is no chance for their crimes to be deterred.  As the move from impunity towards prosecution and justice is still very new, there is much potential for progress to be made, and understanding the complexity of the past will clarify the best path for the future.

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3 responses to “The Nuremberg Precedent

  1. dwanger93 January 30, 2015 at 1:40 pm

    The atrocities that occurred during World War II had never been seen before on the world scale and therefore the world did no know how to react or even categorize the crimes committed during this War. I agree that the Nuremberg trials acted as a vital catalyst for international justice with the way in which it (for the most part) stayed true to the laws of a fair and just trial, and consequently acted as a source of retribution and closure rather than revenge. Speaking as someone whose family was directly affected by the Holocaust, my relatives have always believed that the wounds created by the Nazis will never be fully healed; however, their greatest wish is to never have something like the Holocaust ever happen again. Although that is a very difficult task to accomplish (and ultimately unsuccessful) I believe that the Nuremberg trials were a monumental step in the right direction, not only for international justice, but also for world unity.

  2. McLaughry February 3, 2015 at 10:17 am

    I agree with the above two posts completely. The preliminary complication in establishing the Nuremburg trials was that it had never been done before. Just as Sikkink discusses that in the 1980’s it was unfathomable that a leader could be judged for their crimes in their own country, at the time of Nuremburg it was unthinkable that there could be individual accountability in international justice. In this way, Nuremburg opened up a new realm of possibilities for the accountability and formal processing of individuals instigating and enacting atrocities. Nuremburg reflects the beginning of the transition into an internationally unified world, and an emerging, globally-recognized definition of “human rights,” in addition to changing cultural demands for accountability and justice that have continued into our day and age.

    Where the Nuremburg precedent fails is in its inability to ensure a transition to peaceful and reintegrated societies. As Barria and Roper discuss, the problem with the international courts, which Nuremburg set the stage for, is that their power is quite limited outside of trying and punishing culpable individuals. Societal reparation requires much more than the courts can offer, and thus, they fail in this goal. Without real “boots on the ground” after a conflict, the international community leaves post-conflict societies and their neighbors vulnerable to repeat their mistakes.

  3. samdawg94 February 5, 2015 at 6:30 pm

    To continue the discussion of the effectiveness and message that the Nuremburg Precedent sent (and continues to send), it is imperative to analyze the issue of “victor’s justice,” an idea we discussed in class and read about in various articles. I agree with the original poster that one of the main goals of a trial is to deter future perpetrators and that we are moving in the right direction in the international law arena, I want to add that the concept of “victor’s justice” severely undermines prosecution and justice at the international level.

    As we discussed in class, no Allies were tried at Nuremburg. Thus, while prosecuting Nazis may serve to deter future criminals, it may also cause individuals to be more inclined to take violent action against the side they assume will lose the war. It may incentivize future perpetrators go to even further, more violent extremes so as to ensure that they win the war and are therefore not prosecuted. I would be interested to know if this precedent in the international arena has shifted at all, especially in the times subsequent to the genocide cases in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda. In the case of Rwanda, I would argue that victor’s justice is still a significant obstacle, considering the tension created when the ICTR wanted to try individuals for crimes against humanity and war crimes (as well as genocide) which would mean that Tutsis could be put on trial. Although there were many Hutu victims, the Tutsi-run government in Rwanda chose to run their own (possibly biased) trials and therefore engage in victor’s justice.

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