Speaker talks of growth of International Criminal Court and changing U.S. stances

Emma Carew

Sixty years ago today, Nazi leaders and concentration camp supervisors were indicted for crimes against humanity.

They appeared before international courts at Nuremberg and Dachau, Germany, and were held accountable for their actions during World War II.

Professor William Schabas, Director of the Irish Centre for Human Rights at the National University of Ireland, Galway, spoke to a full auditorium Tuesday in Mondale Hall about the International Criminal Court and the road to its existence.

The International Criminal Court, a permanent central institution, exists to prosecute war criminals and address crimes against humanity.

The notion of bringing international figures to the table of justice for crimes is mostly a new idea, Schabas said. The movement lost momentum during the Cold War, and has been awakened only in the past 15 years.

Schabas discussed the United States’ evolving attitude toward international prosecutions.

As early as the Paris Peace Conference after World War I, Schabas said, there was talk of prosecuting criminals for their crimes during the war.

At that time, the U.S. government did not like the idea of prosecuting criminals from Germany and other countries that had “lost” the war, he said.

After World War II, “no government was keener” on the idea, Schabas said, of international war criminals than the United States.

And, while the United States played a large role in laying the initial framework for the International Criminal Court, today it has an outright hostile attitude toward the court, he said.

Schabas discussed the phrase “crimes against humanity.”

In 1945, prosecutors developed the phrase “crimes against humanity” to use for human rights violations the Third Reich committed against its people.

As a concept, “crimes against humanity” was incomplete during the Nuremberg and Dachau trials, he said, but now it’s workable and there is a permanent institution to carry out the concept.

“That’s pretty good progress for 60 years,” Schabas said.

It’s important to consider natural catastrophes in comparison with man-made catastrophes, said Stephen Feinstein, director of Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies.

Man-made catastrophes, he said, are more durable, with the potential for more lasting effects.

The lecture also included the opening of an exhibit honoring the 60th anniversary of the war crimes trials called “Defending Human Rights: The Legacy of Dachau and Nuremberg.”

The exhibit features photographs and documents from Minnesotan war crimes prosecutor Horace Hansen’s private collection. His family donated the collection in May to the University Law Library.