Heeding Calls for Justice, Upholding the Promise of Nuremberg

Young displaced Iraqis wait for food distribution at a camp on the outskirts of Erbil. — Mackenzie Knowles-Coursin for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum

Seventy-five years ago in Nuremberg, Germany, the International Military Tribunal opened with the case of 24 senior Nazi officials (only 22 of whom were ultimately tried). They faced the world’s first charges of crimes against humanity, including for the extermination of European Jewry.

The Nuremberg trials held out a promise: that individuals found to be responsible for the unimaginable horrors that had characterized the Third Reich would be held to account, and that the coming justice would underpin the prevention of future occurrences of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Nowhere is that failure more evident than when I am with Yezidi survivors of a 2014 genocide perpetrated by the Islamic State, and Rohingya survivors of a 2017 genocide by the Burmese military.

Warning signs of imminent risk of genocide against these long-marginalized communities went largely unheeded. The survivors are living proof that the resolve of those intent on perpetrating mass atrocities is often far greater than those who seek to prevent.

In February I was in camps for displaced Yezidis in Iraq and Rohingya in Bangladesh to talk with survivors. As each year passes, the calls for justice by both communities intensify. Yezidi and Rohingya survivors — bound by the fate of having experienced genocide — want those individuals responsible for the crimes committed, including systematic murder and rape, to be held to account. They also want the crimes to be recognized as genocide and crimes against humanity — both inside and outside of judicial proceedings.

While the crimes of the Third Reich are singular and substantially different in many ways, including size and scope, there are constants in the steps that need to be taken to hold perpetrators accountable.

The Yezidi and Rohingya survivors know that 1) shortly after Nazi Germany’s defeat, internationally recognized prosecutions of senior perpetrators were held; 2) overwhelming evidence shared publicly helped to set a historical record of the crimes and revealed that ordinary individuals are capable of seemingly unfathomable crimes, including against friends and neighbors; 3) trial records undercut efforts to deny the scope and fact of the crimes; and 4) although only a tiny percentage of the Holocaust’s perpetrators were tried in the trials at Nuremberg, the cases paved the way for additional prosecutions of individual perpetrators and reparations.

The first Nuremberg trial opened six and a half months after Germany surrendered. Just under one year later, the first case concluded, and 19 of the men were convicted. For the Yezidis and Rohingya, not a single person has yet been convicted of genocide or crimes against humanity in either case.

Nuremberg also underlined the importance of unity of purpose and a sincere commitment to dedicate the resources needed to bring cases to trial. Today, as the Gambia seeks to hold Burma accountable for the commission of genocide before the International Court of Justice, only two countries, Canada and the Netherlands, have formally supported its efforts.

The two international UN investigative mechanisms — UNITAD and the IIMM — created to gather, preserve, and analyze evidence of crimes perpetrated by ISIS and the Burmese government, respectively, suffer from chronic under-funding and hiring challenges. As they gather evidence, it remains unclear where cases will be heard.

In Burma the government continues to deny the commission of genocide, ostensibly closing the door to domestic accountability. In Iraq, ISIS fighters have been charged with terrorism, but not for their roles in perpetrating genocide. The country has not, thus far, enacted legislation criminalizing genocide. No international tribunals have been established. Sparks of accountability are to be found in national courts, notably those of Germany, but the cases remain few and far between.

Seventy-five years later, Nuremberg’s promise can be salvaged and built on.

There are concrete steps the international community can take.

Laws alone cannot prevent crimes or hold perpetrators accountable. They must be enforced, upheld by an international community guided by conscience and a commitment to the rule of law. Political will must be aligned with the resources and political support needed to bring these types of cases to trial, including for the gathering of evidence, and to keep the pursuit of justice in the spotlight.

In Nuremberg, the Allied Forces rapidly created a court, established laws, gathered evidence, and started prosecutions. Although imperfect, Nuremberg remains a model of what can be achieved through cooperation amongst states, investment of sufficient financial resources, and an enduring commitment to see justice for survivors and victims.

Cases also need to be heard, be it at national, hybrid, or international courts and tribunals. This requires enhancing the capacity and willingness of governments to hold domestic prosecutions, including holding people found living outside of the countries where the crimes took place accountable— as Germany is currently doing with two cases pertaining to the Yezidi genocide—and through universal jurisdiction as Argentina is doing regarding the Rohingya genocide.

We need to foster inclusive processes that place them and their demands at the forefront of our efforts. Our role should be to ease their burden and hear their voices. Doing this is a moral imperative, as well as a key part of efforts to halt crimes, prevent recurrence, and promote reconciliation.

The number of Holocaust survivors with us is rapidly declining. My grandfather was unable to talk to me about his experiences in the Holocaust. But I learned recently that he did talk — to prosecutors in Germany in the 1970s. Survivors’ willingness to share the most painful experiences a human being can experience to help ensure it does not happen to anyone else is their gift to posterity.

That dream will not be realized while they remain with us. But if the survivors I met in Iraq and Burma — along with countless others — see it achieved in their lifetimes, that would be a resounding tribute to the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and to the path towards justice carved out by Nuremberg.

Naomi Kikoler is director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum inspires people worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity. www.ushmm.org