Universal Jurisdiction and the Nuremberg Trials

December 27, 2009

Nuremberg

In preparation for the trials of former Nazi party members at Nuremberg, the International Law Commission was instructed by the United Nations to formulate a list of principles to govern the proceedings.[1] These principles were based upon principles of international law affirmed by the Charter which governed the proceedings. According to the fourth of these Nuremberg principles:  “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him.”[2] Moreover, as was observed in the charter itself the “official position of defendants, whether as Heads of State or responsible officials in Government Departments, shall not be considered as freeing them from responsibility or mitigating punishment.”[3]

Although at no point does the court in Nuremberg acknowledge universal jurisdiction as such, the Charter and the principles derived from it serve as an embodiment of the inchoate changes that were occurring in the ius cogens.  Thus Nuremberg can indeed be seen as among the earliest modern precedent for this, which demonstrates the expansion of peremptory norms among the nations to encompass contemporary notions of ius cogens, viz. crimes against the peace, war crimes and crimes against humanity.[4]


[1] U.N. General Assembly Resolution 177 (II), paragraph (a) U.N. Doc. A/CN.4/85  (1947).

[2] Principles of International Law Recognized in the Charter of the Nürnberg Tribunal and in the Judgment of the Tribunal at Principle IV U.N. Doc. A/CN.4/SER.A/1950/Add.1 (1950).

[3] Charter of the International Military Tribunal at Article, 7 82 UNTS 279; 59 Stat. 1544; 3 Bevans 1238; 39 AJILs 258 (1945).

[4] Id. at Article 6.

One Response to “Universal Jurisdiction and the Nuremberg Trials”

  1. […] of committing crimes beyond the boundaries of the state taking action. Despite its origins in the Nuremberg Trials, universal jurisdiction is a controversial concept, as the trial of Augustus Pinochet […]

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