Political Education

Robert Jackson and the Nuremberg War Crimes Trial

Following World War Two twenty Germans were charged with conspiracy, crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Sensitive to the allegation that this trial would be merely a matter of ‘winners hanging losers’, the Allies sought a theory under which action could properly be taken. In 1945 President Harry S. Truman appointed Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson to be the United States Chief of Counsel to prosecute Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg.

Justice Jackson, top row second left

“The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.”

Robert H. Jackson

Jackson’s first task was to help draft the legal basis, a charter, for the Nuremberg Trials. The defendants could claim that they were being tried retroactively since no specific law existed at the time of the crimes. Jackson invoked the basic principles of law recognized by all civilized nations. The Charter of the International Military Tribunal, also known as the Nuremberg Charter or London Charter, specified the rules and procedures under which the Nuremberg trials would be conducted. It was also the model for the Tokyo Charter under which Japanese war crimes would be tried. The London Charter described three categories of international crimes: crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

International Military Tribunal

“I may say that the chief critics of it were a few international lawyers who simply could not adjust themselves to the idea that the world had moved since the time of the Hague Conventions and that the treaties outlawing war and renouncing it as an instrument of policy had made a change in the old doctrine that it always is legal for a country to go to war for aggressive ends if it pleased its interests to do so.”

Robert H. Jackson
Jackson at Nuremberg

“The privilege of opening the first trial in history for crimes against the peace of the world imposes a grave responsibility. The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated. That four great nations flushed with victory and stung with injury stay the hand of vengeance and voluntarily submit their captive enemies to the judgment of law is one of the most significant tributes that Power has ever paid to Reason.”

Robert H. Jackson, International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg
Hermann Göring on trial

Twelve Nuremberg defendants were sentenced to death, seven were sentenced to prison, and three were acquitted.

The Nuremberg defendants

Today the United Nations definition of war crimes includes the following acts:

  • “Intentionally directing attacks against the civilian population as such or against individual civilians not taking direct part in hostilities
  • Intentionally directing attacks against civilian objects, that is, objects which are not military objectives
  • Intentionally directing attacks against personnel, installations, material, units or vehicles involved in a humanitarian assistance or peacekeeping mission in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, as long as they are entitled to the protection given to civilians or civilian objects under the international law of armed conflict
  • Intentionally launching an attack in the knowledge that such attack will cause incidental loss of life or injury to civilians or damage to civilian objects or widespread, long-term and severe damage to the natural environment which would be clearly excessive in relation to the concrete and direct overall military advantage anticipated
  • Attacking or bombarding, by whatever means, towns, villages, dwellings or buildings which are undefended and which are not military objectives
  • Killing or wounding a combatant who, having laid down his arms or having no longer means of defence, has surrendered at discretion”

Just weeks into the illegal and immoral invasion of Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, and his Russian military leaders have already committed war crimes and violations of international law on a massive scale, including targeting civilians and civilian infrastructure, using cluster bombs, crimes against humanity, and even possibly genocide. International legal proceedings have been initiated by the International Criminal Court, the International Court of Justice, and the European Court of Human Rights. The precedent of the Nuremberg trials and Justice Jackson’s work to establish the rule of law in international relations demand that Putin be held accountable for his atrocities in Ukraine.

For more on Justice Robert Jackson visit https://www.roberthjackson.org/.


Thanks and a tip of the hat to Raymond D’Addario and Wikipedia for the images.

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