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 demand for a universal, permanent court dedicated to trying perpetrators of crimes against international law, which ultimately led to the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The ICC has profoundly shifted the landscape of international justice in many ways, particularly by creating a ground-breaking formal mechanism for victims of international crimes and non-governmental organizations to provide information to the Court about cases that may need to be investigated. 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. Alongside the ICC, additional “hybrid” tribunals—courts that use both foreign and domestic judges—have been established in several countries including Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and Timor-Leste.
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, including by bringing their expertise to the important work of the ICC, hybrid tribunals, and domestic courts. 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 International Justice Initiative works to place victims’ and affected communities’ needs and interests at the center of international justice and accountability measures.
Connections: 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.