How Nuremberg’s universalism undermined its noble aims

Nov 21, 2020 by

by Melanie Phillips:

A clear line connects the tribunal on Nazi atrocities to current antisemitism.

This weekend marks 75 years since the start of the Nuremberg tribunals, which tried leaders of Nazi Germany for their part in the Holocaust and other war crimes.

A clear line links these tribunals to the current possibility of an investigation into Israeli “war crimes” by the prosecutor at the International Criminal Court and to the continuing uproar in Britain’s Labour Party over Jeremy Corbyn.

The Nuremberg tribunal, drawn from the victorious allies after the Second World War, was the first international criminal court in history. It held these Nazis to account for the newly created crime against humanity, as well as for other atrocities.

The principle it enshrined — that all of humanity would be guarded by an international legal shield — laid the foundations for modern international criminal law. This noble principle was fundamentally flawed.

Its visionary architects, such as the eminent British lawyer Hersch Lauterpacht, thought the way to save Jews and others from persecution was to trump national sovereignty by holding oppressors to account through international tribunals.

Others, however, such as the Lithuanian-born lawyer Jacob Robinson, fruitlessly warned that this was a trap because only national sovereignty would safeguard the Jews. “The basic guarantee of Jewish freedom is the democracy of the country where the Jews live,” he maintained.

The flaw in international law is that it is based on supposedly universal values. But the values that stand against savagery, sadism or dehumanisation are not held universally. They are the specific product of western societies and are based on the Hebrew Bible.

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