"Never before in legal history has an effort been made to bring within the scope of a single litigation the developments of a decade, covering a whole continent, and involving a score of nations, countless individuals, and innumerable events."
—US Chief Prosecutor Robert H. Jackson
Today, 60 years after the International Military Tribunal (IMT), the body of international law addressing crimes against humanity has grown dramatically. There are now special tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and for genocide in Rwanda. The framework and the guiding vocabulary for these courts rest on precedents established at Nuremberg.
Even before the end of World War II, leaders of the Allied nations resolved to prosecute those responsible for the war and for violence against civilian populations, including the mass murder of European Jewry. Major war criminals whose crimes could be assigned no particular geographic location would be punished by joint decisions of the Allied governments.
In August 1945 the charter of the IMT was signed, translating the wartime vision into reality. The charter established a military tribunal consisting of one judge and one alternate judge from each of the victorious Allied countries: France, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States. All decisions by the tribunal required a majority vote from this judicial panel.
The tribunal was given the authority “to try and punish persons who acting in the interest of the European Axis countries” committed one of these four newly defined categories of crime:
Count one: conspiracy—engaging in a conspiracy to commit crimes against the peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. The conspiracy charge and the decision to charge specific German and Nazi organizations as defendants before the tribunal allowed for future prosecution of any individual belonging to these legally criminal organizations.
Count two: crimes against peace—planning and waging war.
Count three: war crimes—violations of existing laws concerning mistreatment of enemy combatants and prisoners of war; deliberately causing death or injury to civilian populations outside of military necessity.
Count four: crimes against humanity—the "murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation ... or persecution of an individual on political, racial, or religious grounds." This was the rubric under which Holocaust crimes were tried.
Among the most significant legal concepts to emerge from the IMT was that the defense argument of following orders was not a valid excuse for criminal behavior.