Judgment at Nuremberg 60 Years Later

Nazi war criminal trials spawned international human rights, but have the principles endured?

On September 30, 1946, the judges of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg read the judgments of the individual Germans and organizations responsible for violations of international law before and during World War II. The tribunal found 19 of the 22 individual defendants, and four of the seven defendant organizations guilty of at least one of the crimes for which they had been indicted: crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes against peace.

“This was the first major international criminal trial,” said John O. Haley, professor of law and director of the Whitney R. Harris Institute for Global Legal Studies at Washington University in St. Louis.

“The tribunal held that individuals have duties under international law. Nuremberg became the touchstone for contemporary international criminal trials and spawned the idea of international human rights,” said Haley.

The Nuremberg trials still hold relevance today.

The Nuremberg trials still hold relevance today.

Inside the Palace of Justice

On Sept. 29 through Oct. 1, The Harris Institute will mark the 60th anniversary of the Judgment at Nuremberg with a symposium and special commemorative program that examines the tribunal’s legacy in contemporary international criminal law and honors its participants. Conference presenters will include the trial’s three surviving U.S. prosecutors—Benjamin B. Ferencz, Whitney R. Harris, and Henry T. King Jr.

The Nuremberg trials and the atrocities they revealed shocked the world 60 years ago and continue to resonate with increasing relevance. Yet, as is the case with all human endeavors, the Nuremberg principles have been implemented neither perfectly nor completely, according to Leila Sadat, the Henry H. Oberschelp Professor of Law and a conference organizer.

Tyrannical regimes create cycle of violence

Genocide and crimes against humanity have been committed in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, and the former Yugoslavia, and are now occurring in Darfur as well as other countries on the African continent.

“Aggressive military actions continue to be taken both by tyrannical regimes and western democracies,” said Sadat, a leading expert in international criminal law. “Terrorists with political goals strike indiscriminately at collective groups of innocent individuals. Then powerful nations, stung by their attacks, respond with military force that typically claims more innocent lives than terrorist victims, creating a terrible cycle of violence that may persist for decades.”

Waging peace with the ICC Treaty

At the same time, there has been progress, Sadat said. “The establishment of the International Criminal Court in 2002—the direct embodiment of the Nuremberg legacy—was an enormous step forward in the enforcement of international criminal norms. The ICC is building upon the legacy of Nuremberg and the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the Former Yugoslavia, .”

The ICC Treaty was ratified by 100 nations and represents an extraordinary diplomatic, legal, and moral achievement, Sadat said. The court can prosecute crimes within its jurisdiction committed after the statute’s entry into force, assuming that no state is able or willing to do so.

“The United States, instrumental in establishing the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, has abandoned and even attacked the ICC rather than leading it,” Sadat said.

“This is unfortunate, for strengthening the international rule of law is an important part of increasing the safety and security of all human beings in this global age. The ICC has now issued its first arrest warrants, has several situations under investigation, and is proving to be an important tool in the combat of genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.”