Nuremberg Set Precedent for Current U.N. Tribunals: Trials of Nazis Founded Idea of Crimes against Humanity

By Goldstone, Richard | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), March 5, 1996 | Go to article overview

Nuremberg Set Precedent for Current U.N. Tribunals: Trials of Nazis Founded Idea of Crimes against Humanity


Goldstone, Richard, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


Richard Goldstone, a South African jurist, is chief prosecutor for the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, which is working on indictments for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The tribunal often has been compared to the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals after World War II. The following are excerpts of an article that appeared Dec. 17, 1995, in the San Diego Union-Tribune:

Some weeks ago I had the opportunity to sit in the courtroom in which the Nuremberg Trials started 50 years ago to the day. I could not help but think of the remarkable contribution that the Nuremberg Trials made to the rule of law.

The justice and rule of law that prevailed at Nuremberg after World War II had many implications from which we are now benefiting. Nuremberg was one of the few beacons of light to shine in the 20th century. It has been a very violent century.

About 160 million people have been killed in warfare during this century. What do we expect of the 21st century? Is it going to be a repetition, or are we in fact going to learn from the horrors and the atrocities of the past century?

The beacon that shined out of Nuremberg relates to a number of areas. Consider just two of them.

First, in Nuremberg, for the first time, a multinational court and the nations that created it gave recognition to the very concept of crimes against humanity.

In so doing, Nuremberg confirmed that the prosecution of massive crimes was not only the business of sovereign nations. The introduction of the concept of crimes against humanity established that such crimes could be committed not only against people in a state but in the international arena because it acknowledged that the international community had an interest in punishing crimes that were committed within sovereign states.

Second, and equally important, Nuremberg succeeded in personalizing and individualizing guilt and avoiding collective guilt. Crimes are committed by individuals, not by committees, not by governments, not by cabinets, not by an army. The criminals are people who conceive policies and give orders.

I am referring to the massive crimes that we unfortunately must deal with in the two tribunals, crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia and in Rwanda, with which I am working, but also many other crimes committed in national situations.

It is important in all circumstances, whether it be at a national or international level, whether it be in South Africa, or Chile, or any of the other places where the most terrible abuses and violations of human rights have been committed, that it should not be said that they have been committed by a people as a whole.

Within all communities there are good people; there are people who have courageously fought for human rights and even given their lives for human rights, who are part of the very communities that have spawned the criminals. These were two important lessons that emerged from Nuremberg.

In no country will laws be obeyed if they are not enforced. If speeding laws, if drug laws, or any laws, are not enforced, they will be violated. Not everybody will do so, but some people who have a criminal instinct will ignore the law. For some, it is only the knowledge that there is a legal sanction that keeps people law-abiding.

By humanitarian law, I mean what used to be called the Law of War. …

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