Tim Tate

Author, Film-Maker & Investigative Journalist


The Truth Shall Make You Free Fret


On October 1, 1946 The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg handed down its last verdicts against the 24 surviving leaders of the Nazi state.


The Nuremberg Tribunals were a unique and ground-breaking attempt to create a system of international justice: a court in which those who committed war crimes , crimes against humanity, and crimes against peace could be tried by proper legal standards.


Seventy years later the successor to that brave attempt – The International Criminal Court – is struggling. Today, South Africa, one of the 124 nations which have signed up to be bound by the court, became the latest country to announce that it was pulling out. The announcement – and the reasons for it – are a depressing indictment of the failure to learn the lessons of Nuremburg. And that indictment stretches far beyond Pretoria.


The framers of Nuremberg – America, Russia, France and the United Kingdom – agreed (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) that the end of World War Two should not be marked by traditional victors’ justice. In place of a wall and a firing squad, the men who had ruled the Third Reich were to be afforded the legal due process that the Nazi state had denied so many of its victims.


They were provided – free of charge – with lawyers to represent them, given access to the prosecution’s evidence and allowed to defend themselves as they saw fit. Three of them were acquitted by the court.


Nuremberg was a temporary tribunal. But its creators envisaged the future establishment of a permanent court which would enforce (albeit retrospectively, as all courts do) the most important international laws: those prohibiting war crimes, crimes of aggression and crimes against the peace of the world.


It took another 57 years for this to happen. The Cold War was responsible for some of this delay. But much of it was caused by opposition from countries which should have known better. Seven nations voted against the Treaty which established the court: five – China, Yemen, Libya, Iraq and Qatar – had the sort of oppressive or dictatorial governments which made their hostility predictable. The other two were Israel and the United States: democracies both.


The International Criminal Court began work in 2003. Since then it has opened 10 investigations, indicted 39 people and issued arrest warrants for 31.


It is one of those defendants – Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir – who has caused South Africa to announce its withdrawal.   Not because there is no evidence to justify al-Bashir’s appearance at the Hague – there is a miserable abundance of evidence to support the court’s indictment of him for genocide and war crimes – but because South Africa is putting good relations with its continental neighbours above the principle of justice.


Why – aside from the anniversary – does this matter now ? What relevance does this have to anyone on the bus or tube home tonight ?


Sadly, South Africa’s tawdry decision is part of a wider international retreat from justice. And Britain and its closest ally, the United States, are at the heart of this. America first.


Successive US governments have refused to ratify the Treaty which established the International Criminal Court. Their argument has been that American soldiers, fulfilling their country’s call to be a de-facto world police force should only face trial for any misdemeanours in American court rooms.


US soldiers have repeatedly committed many of the same crimes which brought Nazi leaders to the gallows. But they are rarely brought to justice. And if the United States, the sole surviving military superpower, won’t join the Court it’s hardly surprising that other countries are beginning to desert it.


Britain’s position is a little different. In theory, at least, Her Majesty’s government remains committed to the idea that those who perpetrate the worst crimes in international law should be brought to justice. But on October 4, Prime Minister Theresa May fundamentally undermined this principle. She announced that her government plans to immunize British soldiers against the provisions of another international law – the European Convention on Human Rights. This, she announced, would suspend human rights laws on the battlefield and prevent victims of military crimes from suing soldiers.


“What we’ve seen is human rights legislation being used to generate all these vexatious claims and troops finding themselves in some difficultly in worrying and concerned about the future as a result of that.   We need to stop this industry of vexatious claims which has grown up, with lawyers appearing to chase around to see anybody who will bring about a claim about our troops.”

Brigadier Telford Taylor was one of the prosecutors at Nuremberg. Twenty-five years later he published a slim book in which he outlined clearly America’s retreat from the legal principles which underpinned the Tribunal and the way this had enabled its military to commit crimes against humanity in Vietnam.


That book – Nuremburg and Vietnam: An American Tragedy – should be at the top of the reading list for South Africa’s President Zuma. But on the 70th anniversary of Nuremburg, it is also an moral indictment of the United States government – and of Mrs. May’s grubby little proposal.

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