Canada and War Crimes: Judgment at Tokyo

By Stanton, John | International Journal, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Canada and War Crimes: Judgment at Tokyo


Stanton, John, International Journal


AT THE END OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR, Canada found itself in a position to develop for the first time an appropriate role for a middle power in world affairs. Free of a colonialist past and committed to world peace, Canada sought to contribute to the resolution of conflict through moral suasion, mediation, and strong support for justice through international law. An active role in the establishment of the United Nations in 1945, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson's Nobel Peace Prize for Canadian diplomacy during the Suez crisis in 1956, and Canada's continuing enthusiasm for peacekeeping operations are three examples frequently cited in support of this conventional wisdom. The fact that the one-worldism associated with Pearson and his Ottawa colleagues was moderated by a sharp sense of the realities of power politics is less often mention. In practice, their liberal idealism was tempered behind the scenes with a considerable scepticism about the wisdom of crusades and an emphasis on agreements among sovereign nation states as the basis of international relations. The attempt by the Allied powers to punish the 'arch villains' of the Second World War for 'crimes against humanity' is a case in point.

The first warning of what was to come surfaced when Great Britain, under pressure from the governments-in-exile in London, proposed in October 1941 that the Commonwealth and Allied governments issue a formal declaration condemning German atrocities and promising punishment by organized justice: 'brutalities which are being committed in occupied countries are contrary to the dictates of humanity; are a reversion to barbarism and will meet with sure retribution... Careful record is being kept... so that in due time the world may pronounce its judgment. With victory will come retribution.'(1)

The American president, Franklin Roosevelt, responded with a guarded public statement condemning what he called the frightful acts of desperate men, which only sowed the seeds of hatred and which would one day bring 'fearful retribution.' Britain's prime minister, Winston Churchill, was less cautious. He immediately declared that 'Retribution for these crimes must henceforward take its place among the major purposes of the war.' Meanwhile, the governments of the occupied countries jointly declared that punishment of those responsible for war crimes was among their principal war aims. With this encouragement, Churchill raised the issue again in his meeting with Roosevelt in July 1942; the Americans suggested establishing a United Nations Commission for the Investigation of War Crimes to investigate atrocities and report from time to time to the Allied governments. On 7 October 1942, Lord Symon, Britains' lord chancellor, announced the establishment of the commission and the determination of the Allies to punish those whose 'actions violated every tenet of humanity.'

Canada responded to these initiatives hesitantly and reluctantly. The Cabinet agreed in principle to support an Allied statement condemning atrocities. Vincent Massey, the Canadian high commissioner in London, would be allowed to attend the public signing ceremony for the exiled governments' joint declaration, but strictly as an observer. In general, Ottawa regarded war crimes as a European problem, of concern mainly to the occupied countries. Canada's interest in the issue was slight, at best. Moreover, talk of revenge stirred up memories of the attempt to 'Hang the Kaiser' as the chief war criminal at the end of the First World War - a misguided Imperial policy, the wisdom of which Sir Robert Borden and others had doubted at the time, and, in hindsight, sight, a fiasco.(2) The threat of retribution might have some potential utility as a weapon of political warfare, which could be used to drive a wedge between the Axis leadership and ordinary people. 'By punishing these war criminals, we are trying also to divide the German people and their leaders whom we brand as criminals,' noted one official: 'we hope that when things really start to go bad for the Axis, these people will remember our statements that we are only after the war criminal and that they will get rid of them.

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