How law was used to adjudicate the Holocaust

In efforts to adjudicate the Holocaust, international law was reformed and used in post-War initiatives, such as U.S. and international affairs and the holding of the Nuremberg Trials; although these aspects may have seemed like sufficient responses to the atrocities of World War II, the post-war period still foresaw an era where similar crimes were continuously committed and weaknesses in international law kept revealing themselves. World War II resulted in two major innovations: 1. genocide now exists and is considered a crime, 2. Individuals can be held responsible as the idea of genocide is codified (class lecture). It’s perhaps shocking that international law, even after a major atrocity like the Holocaust, was sidelined after WWII by the Cold War. A short while after WWI, the protection of Armenians and Russians as refugees was at the forefront of the Western world’s agenda. However, law in protection of other minority groups, despite treaties, were not very enforced. The same trend was evident after WWII when the world focused on adjudicating the Holocaust and yet ignoring perhaps other groups that were falling victim to the same sorts of discriminations. Firstly, the war on communism took precedent over human rights. An example of this is the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War for which perpetrators claimed they were following orders (similar to many Holocaust perpetrators with the same claim). Only Lieutenant Calley and 14 others were charged for the massacres and all, except Calley, were acquitted. Calley was later pardoned by President Nixon. In 1986, the U.S. supported the Contras (rebel groups) in Nicaragua which directly violated international law. Although the International Criminal Justice voted in favor of Nicaragua in the case against the U.S., the Security Council headed by the U.S. vetoed that decision. These events, and also those in Biafra and the Cambodian Genocide, demonstrate that the world did not learn much from the Holocaust directly after the second World War.

However, beginning in the 1990s when the iron curtain came down, international law took more of a prominent role in worldly affairs. In 1999, the Serbian Head of State was indicted. This was a revelation in that individuals, even those who yielded significant power in their countries, were increasingly held responsible for their actions. The Rome Statute and the founding of the I.C.C. was also a huge change in this new era even despite its faults. One big learning from this is the fact that nations can now evaluate how countries are acting and call out violators. For instance, the UN called for the U.S.’s closure of Guantanamo Bay, the establishment of which violates international law. With the formation of organizations like the UN, one nation cannot become all powerful as there are checks and balances emplaced on this group of governors. Thus, with a world of greater international communication, the global awareness of rightful treatment of people is increased and fortified.

The idea itself of genocide was also defined more broadly as a “crime against humanity”, as stated in Article 7 of the Selections from Rome Statute, and encapsulated a much more comprehensible idea of what types of crimes actually factored into this definition many countries have begun to creatively use the idea of Genocide to fight for their causes (Selections from Rome Statute). For example, indigenous people in South America are fighting against oil companies that disrupt their traditional way of life and thus threaten their culture and customs. We may today still have issues with how to most effectively ensure human rights to all people through law, but learning from past mistakes of isolationism, the global community is entering a state of increased awareness.

In 1948, the state of Israel was founded for the Jewish people post-Holocaust. This is different than post-World War I when the creation of an Armenian state failed. The second major point of adjudication was the holding of the Nuremberg Trials. Rather than executing those responsible for the Holocaust, the allies held trials in which they evaluated the motives of perpetrators’ wartime terror.  After the trials, the United Nations passed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but this declaration only passed because the Community Bloc abstained from the vote. The inherent weakness of the declaration stemmed from its lack of full support or recognition for the charter. The Allies established the United Nations War Crimes Commission in 1943, which was an attempt at an international criminal court. Unfortunately, often “might makes right” when it comes to international law, so powerful nations are free to manipulate the law to suit their interests, and this was a common problem in enforcing these laws in Germany–one of the most powerful countries in the developed world.

The law did not preclude the transgressions against individual rights because often judges interpreted the law broadly in a way that facilitated the Nazis’ actions. These individuals should be judged on the moral dilemmas and pressures they faced in their day and not by the absolute decisions we hold today.

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