Ferencz International Justice Initiative
To avoid revenge and retaliation, victims of oppression must know that their oppressors have been brought to justice; and efforts must be made to heal the wounds of those who have suffered.
—Ben Ferencz, last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor of Nazi war criminals
Research shows that effectively dealing with past atrocities is critical for societies to prevent future atrocities. Not only can effective justice processes allow post-conflict societies to reconcile and heal, they can also serve as a deterrent to future would-be perpetrators by showing that people will be held responsible for their actions. With the creation of the Ferencz International Justice Initiative, the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide is working to strengthen the international community’s collective capacity to end impunity for the worst crimes. By supporting victims, affected communities, and their representatives, we seek to advance justice for mass atrocities. In this way, the Ferencz Initiative strives to help fulfill Ben Ferencz’s mission to create a more peaceful, humane world.
The Ferencz Initiative recognizes that justice and accountability for atrocity crimes can take different forms in different contexts. While accountability will often require prosecuting those most responsible in a court of law, it may also involve efforts to discover the truth of what happened, to preserve the memories of those affected, and to seek restitution, healing, and reconciliation. The Ferencz Initiative believes that the direct input of affected individuals, communities, and their representatives is essential to achieving justice and accountability.
the Nuremberg trials
The Nuremberg Trials (1945-1946) and Subsequent Nuremberg Trials (1946-1949) are widely considered the birthplace of contemporary international efforts to seek justice and accountability for the most serious crimes. By establishing courts of law to prosecute Nazi leaders for crimes against humanity, war crimes, the crime of aggression, and genocide committed during World War II, the international community demonstrated a commitment to seeking justice—not revenge—even for the most serious international crimes. The International Military Tribunal for the Far East, which was created in 1948 to try Japanese leaders for international crimes, further cemented the Nuremberg legacy. This was a breakthrough period in history that paved the way for the permanent legal institutions of today that address genocide and other mass atrocities.
Justice Efforts in the Second Half of the 20th Century
The Nuremberg Trials created the precedent for subsequent efforts to hold perpetrators of mass atrocities to account. In the 1990s, the United Nations Security Council established international tribunals in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia to prosecute perpetrators of crimes against humanity, genocide, and war crimes. This coincided with an intensified campaign by international lawyers, including Ben Ferencz, for a permanent court dedicated to trying perpetrators of crimes against international law. This led to the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC) a permanent court in The Hague. Victims of international crimes and non-governmental organizations can provide information to the Court about cases that they believe the Court should investigate. Although the founding document of the ICC expressly seeks to put victims at the center of proceedings, the Court has struggled to realize this aspiration.
In addition to the ICC, a number of “hybrid” tribunals (which use both foreign and domestic judges) have been established to address specific situations of mass atrocity in Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Timor-Leste, and Chad. Other victim groups in countries including Haiti and Guatemala have used their own national court systems to prosecute atrocity crimes.
International efforts to hold the perpetrators of mass atrocity to account continue. One ongoing challenge in these efforts is to ensure that those affected by atrocity crimes play a meaningful role in pursuing justice. Local organizations around the world have coalesced around supporting victims and their communities, bringing their expertise to help victims to understand and access appropriate legal forums. Supporting these organizations to develop legal strategies and effective transitional justice measures is an important part of the work of the Ferencz International Justice Initiative. Working with local justice organizations and lawyers, the Ferencz Initiative works to place victims’ and affected communities’ needs and interests at the center of international justice and accountability measures.
International Justice and Atrocity Prevention
Seeking justice and accountability not only helps societies address past atrocities, but also lays the groundwork for preventing future atrocities. Exposing the truth about the past and preserving the memories of the victims of mass atrocities are important to a society’s healing process. However, the benefits of international justice efforts extend beyond the borders of affected countries. Holding perpetrators to account for mass atrocities sends a clear message that these grave crimes will not be tolerated. We believe that the pursuit of international justice can help deter potential perpetrators and prevent future mass atrocities.