Prague, 17 November (RFE/RL) -- Sixty years ago, one of the most important trials in modern history got under way in the bombed out German city of Nuremberg. The first trial began on 20 November 1945, and the proceedings concluded in 1949.
Twenty-four of the highest-ranking captured Nazi leaders -- including Hermann Goering, founder of the Gestapo; Alfred Rosenberg, the chief Nazi racial theorist; and Joachim von Ribbentrop, the Nazi foreign minister -- were charged with war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The first Nuremberg trial and the dozen that followed over the next three years set several key precedents. They marked the first time in history that a country's top officials were tried before an international court and held personally accountable for crimes committed in the name of their country.
They also marked the first time that the charges of "war crimes" and "crimes against humanity" were defined and used in prosecution. Before World War II, it was generally accepted that atrocities were simply part of war.
In his opening speech at Nuremberg, U.S. prosecutor Robert Jackson laid out the reason for the trials. "The wrongs which we seek to condemn and punish have been so calculated, so malignant and so devastating that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored because it cannot survive their being repeated," Jackson said.
Twelve of the original 24 defendants were sentenced to death, three were acquitted, and the rest received long prison sentences when the verdicts were handed down in 1946.
Over the next three years, a dozen more trials took place to hold accountable those who ordered, enabled, or committed atrocities in time of war. Doctors, industrialists, and members of the elite SS death squads -- the Einsatzgruppen commandoes -- were brought to the bar of justice.
The trials also served as a warning to future generations, as Telford Taylor, another U.S. prosecutor, noted at Nuremberg 60 years ago.
"The mere punishment of the defendants or even of thousands of others equally guilty, can never redress the terrible injuries which the Nazis visited on these unfortunate peoples," Taylor said. "For them, it is far more important that these incredible events be established by clear and public proof, so that no one can ever doubt that they were fact and not fable."
The UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the Geneva conventions on the laws and customs of war, and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights were adopted as a result of the judicial precedents set at Nuremberg.
By some estimates, in the six decades since Nuremberg, more than 100 million people have been killed in wars -- millions of them as victims of genocide in countries from Cambodia to Rwanda to the former Yugoslavia.
Nuremberg was supposed to put an end to those crimes. So why does the world still lack the means to stop war crimes and crimes against humanity?
Mixed Record, Slow Convictions
The beginning of the Cold War -- soon after Nuremberg -- halted for several decades attempts to further develop international criminal law.
In recent years, new international courts to prosecute war criminals have been created, including the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Court. But their record is mixed, and convictions have been slow in coming.
According to Professor Hans Koechler, a legal scholar at the University of Innsbruck in Austria, there are several reasons why. For one, the nature of modern wars -- lacking clear front lines, often waged in urban areas, and involving civilians on all sides -- makes it harder to determine exactly when a war crime has been committed.
"The norms [were] the same in 1945 as they are now, for instance [as concerns] the [obligation to ensure] the protection of the civilian population, the avoidance of excessive use of force and so on," Koechler said. "The difficulty now is that the application of those norms, which are clearly defined, and the interpretation of these norms under the conditions of modern warfare, may be much more difficult. The distinction between civilian and noncivilian targets is nowadays blurred, in a certain sense. It is much more difficult to make."
Second, modern rules on presentation of evidence and legal procedures required in a court such as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia are stricter than at Nuremberg. Legal protections for defendants also allow numerous delays and appeals -- measures not permitted at Nuremberg.
Finally, international politics plays a role. Koechler is critical of the tribunal on the former Yugoslavia, which he says is subject to political pressure by virtue of the fact that it was chartered by the UN Security Council -- and not an international treaty representing all the world's countries.
"[The court] has authority to prosecute any crimes committed in a certain period of time on the territory of the former Yugoslavia," Koechler said. "But the prosecutor never took up cases that were brought before it in regards to the behavior of NATO forces on the territory of the former Yugoslavia. They should at least have initiated an investigation, which they never did. And that shows that there is a lack of impartiality and it is also documented in one other case: the prosecutor of the ICTY [Carla del Ponte]. Quite frequently, she makes political statements."
A Fresh Start
Koechler believes the International Criminal Court, whose mandate entered into force in the summer of 2002, could serve as a more positive example, since it -- unlike the Yugoslav tribunal -- was established by international treaty and should thus be more balanced.
But he notes that the United States' opposition to the court as well as China's and Russia's failure to ratify its treaty, make this a vain hope, for now.
"As long as the majority of the most powerful international actors have not ratified the statute, the court will not be able to function according to the requirements of universality and it will deal only with some marginal issues," he said. "And also the functionaries of the court may not really be fully and mentally independent because they may act in a way so as not to alienate potential future ratifiers."
U.S. Nuremberg prosecutor Robert Jackson's hope, formulated 60 years ago, that our civilization should never again witness war crimes, remains an elusive ambition.
A microsite devoted to RFE/RL's coverage of the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II in May 2005.