The quaint and obsolete Nuremberg principles

Glenn Greenwald writes:

Benjamin Ferencz is a 92-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen, American combat soldier during World War II, and a prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials, where he prosecuted numerous Nazi war criminals, including some responsible for the deaths of upward of 100,000 innocent people.  He gave a fascinating (and shockingly articulate) 13-minute interview yesterday to the CBC in Canada about the bin Laden killing, the Nuremberg principles, and the U.S. role in the world.  Without endorsing everything he said, I hope as many people as possible will listen to it.

All of Ferencz’s answers are thought-provoking — including his discussion of how the Nuremberg Principles apply to bin Laden — but there’s one answer he gave which I particularly want to highlight; it was in response to this question: “so what should we have learned from Nuremberg that we still haven’t learned”?  His answer:

I’m afraid most of the lessons of Nuremberg have passed, unfortunately.  The world has accepted them, but the U.S. seems reluctant to do so.  The principal lesson we learned from Nuremberg is that a war of aggression — that means, a war in violation of international law, in violation of the UN charter, and not in self-defense — is the supreme international crime, because all the other crimes happen in war.  And every leader who is responsible for planning and perpetrating that crime should be held to account in a court of law, and the law applies equally to everyone.

These lessons were hailed throughout the world — I hailed them, I was involved in them — and it saddens me to no end when Americans are asked:  why don’t you support the Nuremberg principles on aggression?  And the response is:  Nuremberg?  That was then, this is now.  Forget it.

To be candid, I’ve been tempted several times to simply stop writing about the bin Laden killing, because passions are so intense and viewpoints so entrenched, more so than any other issue I’ve written about.  There’s a strong desire to believe that the U.S. — for the first time in a long time — did something unquestionably noble and just, and anything which even calls that narrative into question provokes little more than hostility and resentment.  Nonetheless, the bin Laden killing is going to shape how many people view many issues for quite some time, and there are still some issues very worth examining.

One bothersome aspect about the reaction to this event is the notion that bin Laden is some sort of singular evil, someone so beyond the pale of what is acceptable that no decent person would question what happened here:  he killed civilians on American soil and the normal debates just don’t apply to him.  Thus, anyone who even questions whether this was the right thing to do, as President Obama put it, “needs to have their head examined” (presumably that includes Benjamin Ferencz).  In other words, so uniquely evil is bin Laden that unquestioningly affirming the rightness of this action is not just a matter of politics and morality but mental health.  Thus, despite the lingering questions about what happened, it’s time, announced John Kerry, to “shut up and move on.”  I know Kerry is speaking for a lot of people:  let’s all agree this was Good and stop examining it.  Tempting as that might be — and it is absolutely far easier to adhere to that demand than defy it — there is real harm from leaving some of these questions unexamined.

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3 thoughts on “The quaint and obsolete Nuremberg principles

  1. robert gard

    Osama declared war on the US.
    Equivalent to a declaration of war, the US Congress authorized the use of force against those who were involved in the 9/11 attacks.

  2. delia ruhe

    Because I’ve been researching WWII for the last coupla years, I’ve been thinking quite a lot about the Nuremberg Principles and the Geneva Conventions. The pattern of getting away with war crimes was established at the same moment that laws against war crimes were entrenched. The incineration of Dresden and 50 other German cities (not to mention Hiroshima and Nagasaki) was clearly a war crime. Indeed, “total war” is a crime.

    As I think I must have mentioned many times before, war as we’ve known it for the past 5000 years is merely the symptom — the symptom of a disease called “militarism.” Every time the US Congress or the Israeli Knesset raises the budget of its military, the barbarity of its war crimes increases. The world’s finest military historians and journalists — like the military establishments they serve — never question the superstition that “if you want peace, you must prepare for war.” In fact, if you prepare for war, that’s exactly what you’ll get. And the more you prepare for it, the more barbaric it will be fought.

    Name two consecutive years of peace during the ‘Cold’ War. Militarism is not a matter of war and peace. Militarism is a perpetual state of war punctuated by cease-fires, some longer than others.

    The US and Israel commit war crimes on a regular basis because they know that no one can stop them. And the people who try, be they whistle-blowers or lesser armies, will pay the ultimate price. That’s not gonna end until militarism ends.

  3. Jo Houston

    Sorry Delia, but must disagree with you over the “incineration of Dresden and 50 other German cities”. You cannot take this out of context. The German nation visited death and destruction on millions upon millions of people during the 20th century, so dont get “dainty” over “war crimes”. I didn’t research WW2, I lived it,and through the saturation bombing of London, and I rejoiced that the punishment fitted the crime where German cities were concerned.,

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