Remarks at Opening of the Nuremberg Trials Memoriam

Stephen J. Rapp
Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues 
Nuremberg, Germany
November 21, 2010

Lord Mayor, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen:

We meet here to commemorate what began in this Palace of Justice 65 years ago today—an event of such importance that it can be said of it as Goethe said of the victory of a citizen army at Valmy, “From this place, and from this day forth, began a new era in the history of the world.”

The Nuremberg trials are so historic because they established the principle that no person is above the law, in words spoken on that opening day of the first trial on November 21, 1945, by the US chief prosecutor, Justice Robert Jackson, who declared “...that law shall not stop with the punishment of petty crimes by little people. It must also reach men who possess themselves of great power and make deliberate and concerted use of it to set in motion evils which leave no home in the world untouched.”

The trials at Nuremberg laid the foundation of a system for the enforcement of international criminal law, promising justice for victims of widespread atrocities across the globe. Yet the impact of these trials was hardly inevitable. In his opening statement, Justice Jackson described the Tribunal as “novel and experimental.” And for nearly half a century after the Nuremberg trials, it seemed that the model of justice established here would remain exceptional and singular.

But in the early 1990s, as “ethnic cleansing” was in full rage in Yugoslavia, when innocent men, women, and children were being murdered and raped, the world once again responded to “wrongs … so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored,” to borrow again from opening words of Justice Jackson. The UN Security Council established an international court, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The international community’s response was directly inspired by Nuremberg, and indeed its statutory definition of Crimes Against Humanity came directly from the Nuremberg Charter. Unlike Nuremberg, however, the Yugoslavia Tribunal was not exceptional: It became a global paradigm: In 1994, when Rwanda endured a genocide, the murder of 800,000 human beings in only 100 days, the natural response was to create an international tribunal to judge the perpetrators. Other internationalized tribunals have followed, such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Extraordinary Chambers of the Courts of Cambodia. And there is now a permanent International Criminal Court, a court which has focused since it came into operation in 2003 on cases of mass atrocities against innocent civilians--cases that the United States, though not a party, supports and to which it urges all states, parties and non-parties alike, to provide cooperation and assistance.

The legacy of Nuremberg lives in the international courts of the 21st century, not only in the principle that powerful leaders must be held to account and in the universal norms established here and now set forth in their statutes. The words and the work of lawyers and judges that served in this Palace of Justice, serve us still. I can say from my own experience, as a prosecutor in two of these later tribunals, that one could hardly begin a trial without reviewing again the eloquent statements delivered by the prosecutors in opening their historic cases. The decisions of the judges are applied directly to current questions. I recall that in the trial of the leaders of what was called the “hate media” of Rwanda, nothing was as persuasive in determining what speech crossed the line into criminality as the analysis of the judges here who distinguished the cases of the two men who were tried for incitement through the Nazi media, in their decision to condemn Julius Streicher and to acquit Hans Fritzsche.

We have also learned important lessons from what followed after Nuremberg in Germany itself: practitioners of international justice today recognize that one of the most enduring legacies of Nuremberg took root when national courts in Germany took up prosecutions of Nazis. The lesson taught by this experience is that for international prosecutions to have a lasting and real difference in the daily lives of peoples, they need to be followed by trials in the places where the perpetrators lived, where they can be judged by the people whose humanity they betrayed. This lesson is being followed in the War Crimes Chamber in Bosnia, and in state courts in Serbia and Croatia. It is recognized in the principle of complementarity in the International Criminal Court, which means that even while the ICC charges the top leaders of groups that have victimized the innocent in Uganda and the DR Congo, trials of mid-level commanders need to happen in the new war crimes division of the Ugandan High Court and in the recently proposed specialized mixed chambers in the DR Congo.

A great deal has changed since 1945. Germany today is united and democratic, strong and prosperous, a leader in the middle of Europe—a Europe that is whole and free. Germany is at the forefront of international justice, with its lawyers and judges filling the ranks of almost every international tribunal. Its diplomats are leaders in the efforts to establish and ensure the effectiveness of the International Criminal Court. Its programs to assist the building of the rule of law in the developing world are among the most generous and successful. Its own domestic court system is now setting international precedents in cases targeting the political leaders, resident in Germany, for the mass murders and rapes committed by their militia in the DR Congo. As an American I am proud that from those days 65 years ago, the United States has been Germany's supporter, ally, partner, and friend.

It is also important to remember that it was an international effort that achieved justice at Nuremberg and established the legacy of which I have spoken. While we Americans often cite the words of Justice Jackson, he was the U.S. chief prosecutor, responsible for leading the argument on Count I of the indictment of the 22 Nazi leaders. He was joined by U.K. chief prosecutor, Sir Hartley Shawcross, by U.S.S.R. chief prosecutor, General RA Rudenko, and by French chief prosecutor, Francois Menthon, who had the lead on Counts II, III, and IV, respectively. The historic judgment issued on October 1, 1946, bore the imprint of contributions of judges from the four countries, each drawn from very different legal traditions. That experience teaches us how much can be established when nations work together for a common objective.

The world is very different now, but cooperation remains of paramount importance. In that regard, it is great to see the ever closer relationship that is developing between Russia and NATO as shown by the participation of President Medvedev at the NATO summit this very weekend. It was the common effort of great nations that made possible the achievement of justice at Nuremberg. It is through similar common efforts of nations that justice can be achieved for the victims of mass atrocities everywhere in the world.