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The Nuremberg Trials | Article

The Legacy of Nuremberg

USHMM, Courtesy of National Archives

Prior to the 19th century, the rules of war were temporary and informal, changing with each battle. No international rules existed. In 1864, twelve nations signed the first Geneva Convention, which guaranteed neutrality to medical personnel who would be identified by the special emblem of a red cross on a white background. Such conventions have grown into a set of internationally recognized principles. They protect civilians, medics, the wounded or prisoners of war, and ban weapons or methods of warfare likely to cause unnecessary losses or excessive suffering, such as hollow bullets or poison gas. Today more than 190 nation states adhere to the conventions -- almost all the countries in the world. The international gathering at Nuremberg was the world's first tribunal to hold a country and its leaders responsible for violating these conventions.

Justice or Conquest
The Allies' attempt to enforce international justice, although widely viewed as admirable, was criticized for double standards and self-serving restrictions that compromised the trial's fairness. Allied crimes were made exempt from prosecution, which lead some observers to label the trial "victor's justice." In a letter to Harry Truman on October 12, 1945 lead prosecutor Jackson cited potential flaws in the trial that the defendants might exploit. Although it was not his overall view, Jackson wrote that the Allies "have done or are doing some of the very things we are prosecuting the Germans for. The French are so violating the Geneva Convention in the treatment of prisoners of war that our command is taking back prisoners sent to them. We are prosecuting plunder and our Allies are practicing it. We say aggressive war is a crime and one of our allies asserts sovereignty over the Baltic States based on no title except conquest."

A Secured Position
Jackson created a framework that would prohibit the Germans from discussing the causes of war, from pleading tu quoque ("you did it too") or from asserting that the law under which they were being tried was ex post facto, meaning that the law had not been established when the crimes were committed.

A Basis for the Rule of Law
The international rules created in the course of the trial preparations formed the basis for subsequent changes to the Geneva Conventions approved in 1949 and the United Nations report on the Principles of International Law Recognized in the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and in the Judgment of the Tribunal in 1950.

The U.N. Tribunals
In the 1990s, following the Nuremberg model, the United Nations took the responsibility to establish special international criminal tribunals in Yugoslavia and Rwanda to prosecute those responsible for war crimes and genocide. In 1997, the first international tribunal since World War II convicted a Bosnian Serb, Dusko Tadic, of crimes related to the rape, torture and murder of prisoners in three northern Bosnian camps. The tribunal sentenced Tadic to 20 years in prison.

Permanent Court for War Crimes
In 2003 the movement that the Nuremberg trial had sparked succeeded in establishing a permanent International Criminal Court (I.C.C.) at The Hague, a city in the Netherlands.

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