Global Policy Forum

The Lessons of Nuremberg


By Martha Minow and Margot Stern Strom *

Boston Globe
November 3, 2005

The International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg opened its doors 60 years ago this month. No one then imagined that the use of criminal trials to respond to mass atrocity would become a familiar and even expected feature of international relations. Yet trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, and the Special Court for Sierra Leone are underway, and the International Criminal Court recently issued its first arrest warrants for senior leaders of the Lord's Resistance Party in Uganda.

With the end of the Cold War, resistance to international criminal trials subsided. The model offered by the post-World War II trials of Nazi leaders and collaborators inspired increasing reliance on criminal prosecution and punishment following mass atrocities. The United States, while opposed to the International Criminal Court, nevertheless invoked that court's criminal justice powers in joining the other nations on the UN Security Council to investigate the situation in the Darfur region of Sudan. How should US citizens understand these developments?

The answer is complicated. To impose a criminal justice model on mass atrocity is intended to break cycles of violence and revenge through the aspirations of the rule of law. This locates responsibility in individuals rather than nations or ethnicities and holds individuals accountable for their actions. This effort can also record what happened and summon condemnation from nation states and ordinary people.

The criminal justice response to mass atrocity can break silences produced by fear or repression. Hence, criminal justice initiatives by a prosecutor in Spain and investigations in England dramatically ended the impunity experienced by Augusto Pinochet -- first internationally and then at home in Argentina. Advances in international law have emerged in the tribunals in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, including recognition of rape as a war crime.

Yet these elaborate and formal trials can be problematic. They often occur far away from the survivors and relatives of victims most affected by the violence. Most troubling, the international criminal trials have not deterred genocide, mass atrocity, and crimes of aggression. The trials have not notably curtailed the patterns of aggression and cruelty that accompany ethnic conflict. The seeds for the next catastrophe are too often produced with each last one.

To prevent mass violence and genocide, we need more. We will need to summon the hopes and commitments of new generations around the world. Here, education in schools and in broad public venues holds the best promise. Students can learn about the failures of democratic accountability that so often precede atrocity. Communities can learn about the dangers of blind obedience (and the power of bystanders to become what author Samantha Power calls ''upstanders," speaking out against hatred and violence). Discussions about these topics can be difficult. Yet people can learn to confront the past openly and with critical understanding. Quality civic education demands thoughtful curriculums, teacher education, and support from all sectors of society -- business, government, and the independent sector. The lessons about human rights that are taught in the classrooms in this country, in Rwanda, in Serbia, can strengthen respect for the dignity of all and prevent future atrocities. Armed with knowledge about the past, a new generation can generate the vigilance that makes democracy strong and prevents scapegoating and violence.

Prosecutors, journalists, and observers of the Nuremberg trials will join this week with prosecutors from the current tribunals, human rights activists, educational and political leaders, and students to ask whether and how law can be coupled with education to pursue human dignity, not only after but before mass violence. Harvard Law School joins with the international education organization, Facing History and Ourselves, to convene not only lawyers but also educators and students from around the world in a two-day conference to address how education can promote respect for human dignity.

The bold step of the Nuremberg trials challenges us to be as bold in pursuing dignity in our dangerous time. It will take much imagination and sustained effort to address the cycle well-described by Yolande Mukasana's words on the wall of the National Genocide Museum in Kigali, Rwanda: ''There will be no humanity without forgiveness. There will be no forgiveness without justice. There will be no justice without humanity."

About the Authors: Martha Minow is a professor at Harvard Law School. Margot Stern Strom is executive director and cofounder of Facing History and Ourselves.

More Information on International Justice
More General Articles on Special International Criminal Tribunals
More Information on International Criminal Tribunals and Special Courts


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.