Nuremberg: 70 years ago international justice was born

18th November 2015, Comments 0 comments

Almost 70 years ago, on November 20, 1945, leaders of the World War II Nazi regime went on trial in the German city of Nuremberg at the biggest trial in history.

Here are the answers to key questions about the trials, which laid the foundations of a universal justice system.

- The accused -

QUESTION: Who was on trial in Nuremberg?

ANSWER: Twenty-one of the top leaders of the Nazi regime and eight organisations, including the Gestapo and the SS, were on the accused bench.

Among them were the former number two of the regime, Hermann Goering, Adolf Hitler's deputy Rudolf Hess, and the Nazis' foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. Another top Nazi Martin Bormann was not on the accused bench but was tried "in absentia", bringing the number of accused to 22.

They were on trial for conspiracy, war crimes, crimes against peace and, for the first time in history, crimes against humanity.

Nuremberg was a military tribunal whose four judges represented the allied powers -- the United States, Britain, the Soviet Union and France.

"It was victors' justice. The Allies were never put on trial for their crimes. A pitfall that we have tried to never repeat," said Fannie Lafontaine, professor in international criminal and humanitarian law at Quebec's Laval University.

On October 1, 1946, 12 of the accused were sentenced to death, seven to prison sentences and three were acquitted.

- Building block in international justice -

QUESTION: What does this trial represent?

ANSWER: "It is the first building block in the fight against impunity, aimed at considering that crimes offending humanity's conscience should be prosecuted and cracked down on," said lawyer Elise Le Gall, who took part in a trial at the Senegalese court which is trying former Chadian leader Hissene Habre for crimes against humanity.

"Nuremberg is for the first time the recognition of individual criminal responsibility for international crimes like war crimes. Now it seems obvious. But it was a revolution, because international law confined itself mainly to relations between states," Lafontaine said.

"Another important principle posed by the trial is that leaders cannot hide behind their position to shirk their responsibility," she added.

- The outcome -

QUESTION: What were the results of the trial?

ANSWER: "Nuremberg really gave the impetus. As much at the judicial level, with trials such as that in Tokyo (1946-48, of Japanese war criminals) as at legislative level with a blossoming of texts on international law," said Le Gall.

In 1950, the UN's international law commission drew up the "Nuremberg principles". They defined the notions of war crimes, crimes against peace, and crimes against humanity and affirmed that the perpetrators are personally responsible for their acts.

- International justice takes shape after Cold War -

QUESTION: When are these principles applied?

ANSWER: "For nearly 50 years, tensions between east and west were such that we did not manage to reach a consensus to create an international court," Lafontaine said.

"In the mid-1990s, the Cold War ended, geopolitics changed and, faced with conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, we returned to this idea of responsibility."

In 1993 the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was created.

It was followed by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in 1994 and the Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2002, which resulted in the first conviction of an ex-head of state in Liberia's Charles Taylor.

In embryonic form at the end of World War II, the International Criminal Court (ICC) finally became operational in 2002.

Established in The Hague, it was the first permanent court charged with following up on war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide.

Congo's Thomas Lubanga became the court's first accused to be sentenced in 2012 to 14 years in prison for enrolling child soldiers.

© 2015 AFP

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