The Trials at Nuremberg: The forerunner of international criminal tribunals

The Trials at Nuremberg: The forerunner of international criminal tribunals

As the Second World War came to an end with the defeat of the Axis Powers, there arose a question as to how the soldiers, their commanders and other people who’ve contributed to the German, Italian and Japanese side of the war should be dealt with.

The reason for this special scenario was that these were crimes committed to the highest degree but did not have any laws speaking about the sanctions to be imposed. More importantly, this was a cross-national conflict and not domestic, therefore laws of a single country could not find any jurisdiction in this area.

Poland, right after being invaded began to pursue a Britain and France to condemn the attacks by the German forces. Later in 1940, Britain along with France and Poland gave a declaration stating that they wanted to protest to the world at large against the actions of the German government asking them to be held responsible for their crimes which cannot go unpunished. In 1943, the Soviet Union, the United States and the UK published the Declaration on German Atrocities in Occupied Europe which posed as a warning stating that when the Nazis were defeated these countries will look into it that justice is served.  These ideologies were furthermore reiterated at the Yalta Conference in 1945.

Various opinions on how to punish the axis’ including the execution of 50,000-1,00,000 were put on the table. This could have become the actual practice if Britain’s then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill had not vehemently opposed it. The ensuing difference in ideologies between F. Roosevelt, Churchill and Joseph Stalin on how the punishments should be levied finally came to a closure when a judicial process was finally approved of.

Ultimately, the US, the UK and the Soviet along with France established the London Charter calling for a trial for the punishment of the major war criminals of the European Axis countries. The trial was to be conducted at the Palace of Justice at Nuremberg. This was because the Palace was very spacious and undamaged during the bombings by the Allied powers and also because Nuremberg was considered to be the birthplace of the Nazi Party. Each country provided one judge, one alternative and one prosecutor. There were four indictments and 24 accused. Not every accused was indicted for all the offences.

Unlike the First World War, this was the first time that a judicial process was followed to decide the fate of the perpetrators. The imposition of such high sanctions on Germany is also thought to be one of the reasons for the Germany outburst resulting in the Second World War.

The Nuremberg Trials were the first of its kind which left a legacy of introducing tribunals to deal with international conflicts later on. The conclusion of the Trial served as a model for the Genocide Convention 1948, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, the Nuremberg Principles 1950, The Convention on Abolition of the Statute of Limitations on War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity 1968 and the Geneva Convention 1949.

Later on, more tribunals were established to deal with various cross-border conflicts such as the Yugoslavian Tribunal, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda etc. This also paved the way for the establishment of a permanent tribunal, The International Criminal Court in 2002 by the International Law Commission of the United Nations Organisation.

The Nuremberg Trials have their own share of criticism but it has laid the foundation for the dealing with international disputes of criminal nature not only by individuals against a mass but also among different countries.


Chandrendu Chattopadhyay

Chandrendu Chattopadhyay

I'm a law student studying at NMIMS University, Mumbai.

Chandrendu Chattopadhyay

I'm a law student studying at NMIMS University, Mumbai.

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