Courts and Justice in International Law: The Post-World War II Military Tribunals
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Courts and Justice in International Law: The Post-World War II Military Tribunals

In the wake of World War II, the victorious Allied powers—notably the U.S., Great Britain, Soviet Union and France—established and authorized an International Military Tribunal to prosecute high-ranking Nazi officials for war crimes and crimes against humanity, among other alleged offenses.

The jurisdiction afforded to the Tribunal was somewhat unique because it covered “offenses [that] had no particular geographical location”(War Crimes: Nuremberg Trials, 2007) . These offenses were crimes against human dignity as well as crimes against specific individuals. It represented a concrete recognition that a violation of human rights had occurred that were equally as important if not more important than other well-defined transgressions against the laws of war. Eventually, 19 other nations joined in supporting the authorization of the Tribunal.

The trials that followed, known as the Nuremberg trials after the German city in which they were held, considered the charges against 24 Nazi leaders. It took 216 court sessions over a one year period for verdicts to be reached. In the end, three defendants were acquitted, three were imprisoned with 10-20 year sentences, three were given life prison sentences, twelve were condemned to be hanged, and two were exempted from prosecution (one had committed suicide, the other was deemed mentally unfit for trial) (War Crimes: Nuremberg Trials, 2007).

The defendants made two arguments against the charges. First, they claimed that only states and not individuals could be held responsible for the types of crimes of which they had been accused (War Crimes: Nuremberg Trials, 2007). The court’s rejection of this argument set a landmark precedent, establishing that rights could be discussed and enforced on the level of the individual regardless of the involvement of states, and that state authority could not be used to shield individuals from criminal accountability.

The second argument challenged the very basis of the charges, asserting that several of the offenses should not be considered crimes since they were criminalized in law (through the various UN conventions described in this Brief) only after they had been committed, i.e. ex post facto (literally, “after the fact”) (War Crimes: Nuremberg Trials, 2007). The court’s rejection of this argument, broadly speaking, hinged on the idea that these crimes had already been implicitly covered under preexisting international law and bolstered the claims of human rights advocates the such rights should be considered settled international law, or jus cogens.

Similar trials were held in Tokyo, known as the Tokyo trials, for suspected Japanese war criminals under the jurisdiction of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. All 25 defendants were convicted, and seven were condemned to death by hanging (War Crime: The Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials,  2007). The Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals provided a model for how war crimes, crimes against humanity, and eventually genocide could be prosecuted under international law.


Next: The Persistence of Genocide and Subsequent UN Tribunals