An important marker of civilization has always been the ascendancy of law over the unbridled use of force. At the outset of the twenty-first century, we are faced with a pervasive dilemma. Reliance on force, given the power of our destructive technologies, could destroy civilization as we know it.
The trials at Nuremberg and Tokyo following World War II were an attempt to elevate the force of law over the law of force. The newly created International Criminal Court, which will bring the principles of Nuremberg into the twenty-first century, is supported by all major U.S. allies. Unfortunately, U.S. leaders are opposing the court and seem to fear being held to the same level of accountability as they would demand for others.
Of course, law doesn't prevent all crime. It simply sets normative standards and provides that those who violate these standards can be punished. In the case of the most heinous crimes, the remedies of law are inadequate. But even inadequate remedies of law are superior to the unbridled use of force that compounds the injury by inflicting death and suffering against other innocent people. Perpetrators of crime must be brought before the bar of justice, but there must also be safeguards that protect the innocent from being made victims of generalized retribution.
When an individual commits a crime, there should be clear liability. When a nation commits a crime, however, who is to be held to account? According to the principles of Nuremberg that were applied to the Axis leaders after World War II, it should be the responsible parties, whether or not they were acting in the service of the state. At Nuremberg, it was determined that sovereignty has its limits, and that leaders of states who committed serious crimes under international law would be held to account …