From Nuremberg to The Haag Von Nürnberg nach Den Haag The Nuremberg Principles – Blueprint for a new international criminal law | From Nuremberg to The Hague

The Nuremberg Principles – Blueprint for a new international criminal law

Robert H. Jackson, US Chief Prosecutor
in his opening statement in Nuremberg
on 21 November 1945: “…we must
never forget that the record on which
we judge these defendants today is the
record on which history will judge us
tomorrow. To pass these defendants a
poisoned chalice is to put it to our own
lips as well.”


The Nuremberg Principles

After the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials, many years passed without any further international proceedings being instituted against war criminals and perpetrators of other core international crimes, although Robert Jackson had announced in Nuremberg that more trials were to follow. However, the counts and the fundamental legal principles articulated for Nuremberg, as set out in the London Charter, were soon declared by the United Nations to be general principles of international law. On 11 December 1946, only a few weeks after judgment was proclaimed in Nuremberg, the UN General Assembly unanimously affirmed the principles of international law underlying the Charter of the Nuremberg Tribunal and the judgment of the Tribunal.

At the same time, it directed the nascent International Law Commission, established as the Committee for the Progressive Development of International Law and its Codification, to formulate a draft codification of these principles and to put forward proposals for an international criminal court.

On 29 July 1950, the International Law Commission (ILC) submitted its version of the “Nuremberg Principles”, which have since been viewed as binding international law. In the same year, the ILC submitted its first Draft Code of Offences against the Peace and Security of Mankind. The Commission also advocated the creation of a permanent international criminal court to try these offences.

In 1954, it presented the General Assembly with a revised Draft Code, which again incorporated the Nuremberg Principles. However, the General Assembly neither adopted the Code of Offences nor established the proposed court. The Nuremberg Principles remained unimplemented until the 1990s. And even then, the re-revised draft submitted to the General Assembly by the ILC in 1991 was not accepted. It was not until the two ad-hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda were established that the idea of creating a permanent international criminal court gained sufficient momentum to get off the ground.

Significance for international law

The categorization of Germany’s wars of aggression as a violation of existing international law was uncontentious.
What was new was that responsibility was attributed to individuals, and not to states, until then the traditional subjects of international law. War crimes – crimes perpetrated in wars – were also unambiguously defined. Throughout the trial, the German defence counsel repeatedly tried to raise the issue of war crimes committed by the Allies. It remains a valid criticism that actions perpetrated by the Allies, for example the wars of aggression conducted by the Soviet Union, the  bombing of densely populated cities, the dropping of atomic bombs on Japan and the murder of 4000 Polish officers by the Soviet army near Katyn, have not at any time been put on trial.

The previously little-used offence of “crimes against humanity” was rightly characterized by Robert Jackson as vital in order to subject to international law a barbaric relinquishment of the norms of civilized nations.

The frequently heard accusation that the trial was an example of “victor’s justice” could not be supported by claims that the charges were arbitrary or that fair process was not granted. The aim of the trial was not to hoist collective guilt on Germany as a whole. On the contrary, it was individuals who were in the dock. The aim of the trial was to prove their individual responsibility.

The trial was part of the efforts to open the eyes of the German people to the realities of the Nazi regime – it was an instrument of democratic re-education. This was however too much to expect of a legal trial, as was evident from the ambivalent response it evoked amongst the German population. Nevertheless, the Nuremberg courtroom witnessed the first major public airing of the crimes of the National Socialists, a milestone of historical investigation and revelation. For all its faults, the Nuremberg trial laid the foundations and the path for the international criminal law of the post-war years.

The Nuremberg Principles

01 Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefore and liable to punishment.

02 The fact that internal law does not impose a penalty for an act which constitutes a crime under international law does not relieve the person who committed the act from responsibility under international law.

03 The fact that a person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law acted as Head of State or responsible Government official does not relieve him from responsibility under international law.

04 The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.

05 Any person charged with a crime under international law has the right to a fair trial on the facts and law.

06 The crimes hereinafter set out are punishable as crimes under international law: a) Crimes against peace b) War crimes c) Crimes against humanity.

07 Complicity in the commission of a crime against peace, a war crime, or a crime against humanity as set forth in Principle VI is a crime under international law.