2015-2016 marks the 70th anniversary of the trial of Nazi war criminals before the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremberg. The influence of the Trial can be traced to the foundation of latter-day international criminal courts and the United Nations Charter of Human Rights.
On August 8, 1945 the United States, England, France and the Soviet Union signed the London Agreement. The London Agreement & Charter became the basis for the trials before the IMT at Nuremberg. For two months during the summer of 1945, Robert H. Jackson and his team, which included his son William E. Jackson, worked at achieving a consensus among the Allies. Jackson’s energy, intelligence and leadership directed the London Conference. The jurisdiction of the Tribunal was outlined in article 6 of the Charter. This article defined the crimes the defendants could be charged with; crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
The Charter defined the three crimes.
(a) CRIMES AGAINST PEACE: namely, planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances, or participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing;
(b) WAR CRIMES: namely, violations of the laws or customs of war. Such violations shall include, but not be 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 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: namely, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war; or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.
Leaders, organizers, instigators and accomplices participating in the formulation or execution of a common plan or conspiracy to commit any of the foregoing crimes are responsible for all acts performed by any persons in execution of such plan.
The Avalon Project
In 2005, John Q. Barrett, Professor of Law, St. John’s University & Elizabeth S. Lenna Fellow at the Robert H. Jackson Center, discussed the importance of the 1945 London Agreement.
“Jackson spent a month, a dogged, deliberate, detailed month arguing that this was about law, and one of the core defining characteristics of law is that it is universal. If this was really going to be something that existed and could be fairly applied by us to those that we defeated, it had to be something that was general. In the famous words Jackson used months later at the Trial, this can’t be a poisoned chalice if we put it to their lips we put it our own lips as well, and it took a month of incredible sessions to bring the Soviet Union around to that that position.”
In Chapter 17, of The Reminiscences of Robert H. Jackson, Jackson recalled the London Conference, and the signing of the Agreement.
“On 8 August 1945 we signed the agreement, as I was authorized to do on behalf of the United States, and it was announced to the world. Up to that time there had been some press rumors that we were having difficulties in arriving at it. We had frankly admitted that we had, but there had been no exploitation of our differences. The document was received with considerable satisfaction in most interested countries.”
The summer of 1945 was the summer that World War II ended. Captured Nazi leaders waited, their fate unknown. The Allies were still uncovering death camps, and survivors walked in ruined cities. The work that Jackson and others did in London during that summer was not without conflict, and did not solve the enormous problems that would arise in the years to come. In 1947, Jackson wrote:
“Of course, it would be extravagant to claim that agreements or trials of this character can make aggressive war or persecution of minorities impossible, just as it would be extravagant to claim that our federal laws make federal crime impossible. But we cannot doubt that they strengthen the bulwarks of peace and tolerance. The four nations through their prosecutors and through their representatives on the Tribunal, have enunciated standards of conduct which bring new hope to men of good will and from which future statesmen will not lightly depart. These standards by which the Germans have been condemned will become condemnation of any nation that is faithless to them.”
Today, we must reflect on these words, study them, and pass them on to the next generation.