War crime trials and their political challenges



War crimes are considered to be serious violations of treaty laws and rules of customary laws regarding international humanitarian laws which have been accepted to constitute a criminal offense for which an individual is responsible. In this regard, a war crime involves violation of laws of war which have been established and the failure to observe rules, procedures, and norms of battle. Soon after the outbreak of the Second World War, when the violation of the customs and laws of war by the Nazi was revealed as defined by The Hague and Geneva Conventions, Allies started publishing declarations, warnings, and official notes against the perpetrators of crimes against humanity.

The scales of crimes against humanity committed during war are of global concern. Most importantly, the crimes are committed with a human motive to weaken the opponent. However, innocent souls are lost and harmless citizenry affected due to the inhumane and dehumanizing acts of irresponsible war lords. As such, the law has always been embraced as a tool of giving justice after genocide. Unique criminal incidences during the War World II were examples of such crimes against humanity and led to both the domestic and international courts conducting trials of the perpetrators of war crimes. For instance, the governments of the allied powers declared their ambition to punish criminal of war belonging to the Axis in 1942. The joint declaration by the Soviet Union, United States, and Great Britain on December 17, 1942, acknowledging the mass murder of the European Jews and resolving to punish those behind the crimes against civilian population served as a good example of serving justice. The purpose of this paper is to address the war crime trials and their political challenges.

The Nuremberg Trials

Soon after Adolf Hitler assumed the position of the chancellor of Germany, he commissioned his Nazi government to start implementing policies that were meant to prosecute enemies of the Nazi State who were perceived to be mainly the German-Jewish individuals. Over a decade, the policies had grown violent and repressive, and by the end of the Second World War around 1939-1945, they had resulted in systemic, government-sponsored mass murder of about 6 million European Jews (Jackson, 2016). Following the official declaration by the allied leaders of the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union in 1942 to prosecute persons responsible for violence against civilian population, the soviet leader, Joseph Stalin proposed the execution of the German staff. On the other hand, Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister discussed the possibility of execution without trial of the Nazis but was successfully convinced by the US leader that criminal trial would be the most effective method of serving justice (Wyzanski, 1946).

One of the greatest advantages of criminal trials was the fact that criminal proceedings during trial would require documentation of the defendant’s crimes that would be used as future evidence to prevent possible accusations of condemnation without evidence (Jackson, 2016). However, the Nuremberg trials were surrounded by various legal and procedural difficulties. One of these difficulties was the lack of a precedent international trial of criminals of war. There were precedents of prosecution of war crimes such as Turkey’s courts-martial in 1919-1920 to prosecute the perpetrators of Armenian genocide of 1915-1916; and the Confederate army officer, Henry Wirz’s execution for torturing the American Civil War’s prisoners in 1861-1865. However, the trials were conducted in accordance with the laws of a single nation and not international laws (Wyzanski, 1946). The Nuremberg trials provided a political challenge as they were conducted by four allied powers, the US, France, the Soviet Union, and Britain who embraced different legal practices and traditions.

With the use of the London Charter of the International Military Tribunal (IMT) of 1945, the allies were able to establish procedures and laws for the Nuremberg trials. The Charter had defined the cries among three distinct categories; crimes against peace were defined as crimes involving preparing, planning, or starting aggression wars or wars which involve the violation of international agreements (Jackson, 2016). On the other hand, war crimes were recognized as crimes amounting to the violation of laws or customs of war as well as improper treatment of prisoners of war and civilians (Jackson, 2016). Finally, the charter defined crimes against humanity as any activity involving murder, deportation or enslavement of civilians, or persecution of persons on racial, religious, or political grounds. This established that military officers as well as civilian officials were subject to the laws and could be accused of war crimes.

The Nuremberg City in the German State of Bavaria was selected as the best location for conducting the trials since it is the home city of the Palace of Justice which remained intact without damage during the war period and had a vast prison area. Nuremberg had also served as the location of annual Nazi propaganda rallies (Holocaust Encyclopedia, 1997). Conducting the postwar trials in the city, therefore, was used to symbolize the end of Hitler’s regime, Third Reich.

Major War Criminal’s Trials (1945-46)

The high-profile Nuremberg trials were the trial of the major criminals which were conducted between November, 20, 1945 and October 1, 1946. The trials followed a unique format which was also challenging as it involved a mixture of legal traditions. The trials involved defense attorneys and the prosecutors according to the American and the British law, but the sentences and trial decisions were not imposed by a single judge and jury but by a tribunal which consisted of a panel of judges (Brian, 2014). Robert H. Jackson who served as an associate justice of the American Supreme Court acted as the chief prosecutor of the trials, while each of the four Allied powers provided two judges.

The trials saw the indictment of twenty-four individuals along with six Nazi organizations such as Gestapo who determined to be criminal. While one of the indicted men was pronounced to e medically unfit to stand trial, another one killed himself before the trials could begin (Jackson, 2016). Hitler together with his two associates, Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler committed suicide before they were brought to trial in the spring of 1945. The defendants had the freedom to choose their lawyers who adopted a defense strategy that the suspects were subjected to ex post facto law of the London Charter because the laws criminalized the actions committed before the drafting of the laws (Brian, 2014). Another defense argument was that the trials were an example of victor’s justice in which harsh standards were applied to crimes committed by Germans while crimes committed by other soldiers were treated with leniency.

The international tribunal was able to find twenty-one defendants guilty; twelve of whom were sentenced to death while the rest were imprisoned for a period ranging from 10 years to life imprisonment. Among the condemned, ten were executed by hanging in 1946. However, Hitler’s designated successor, Hermann Goring committed suicide in the eve of his execution using a cyanide capsule he had managed to hind in a container of skin medication.

Japanese War Crime Trials

The trial and subsequent conviction of General Tomoyuki Yamashita in 1946 provide an outstanding event of trials of criminals of war. General Yamashita was tried in US high commissioner’s residence in Manila by military commission which was a panel that comprised of five American general officers (Smith, 2006). The panel was presided over by the overall pacific commander, Gen. Douglas MacArthur who had the power to convene the commission as well as establish its powers and procedural rules.

The commission assumed a command responsibility in which the commission was not bound by safeguards and procedural rules which are inherent in martial as well as civil court systems (Smith, 2006. Once the war had ended, the commission had started its hearing where ghastly details of torture, wanton destruction, rape, slaughter, burnings alive, beheading, and murders of the helpless babies, women, American prisoners of war, and priests. Although Yamashita was not convicted for conducting the murder himself, or directing his soldiers to commit the murder in his name, he was found guilty of being an evil commander (Smith, 2006). This was in the sense that being a commander, he was in charge of the men who did the unspeakable evil things.

According to the defense counsel Colonel Harry Clarke, Yamashita’s case was unique in the sense that he was convicted for who he was but not for what he had done. This was not in the jurisprudence of American military personnel but Yamashita was found guilty for crimes committed by others (Smith, 2006). However, the prosecution maintained a position that the atrocities committed by Japanese troops were so immense that Yamashita must have been aware. Yamashita found guilty for war crimes and was sentenced to murder and was hanged on February 23, 1946 in Manila.


The trials on war crime were seen as a major breakthrough to serving justice to the oppressed and the innocent civilians who had suffered atrocities during the war. The army commanders and public officials who had perpetrated the vicious acts during the war were also held accountable for their irresponsible behavior which heinously affected peoples’ lives. The trials also set a positive precedence of international justice. However, these trials had their own spate of challenges and evil endings which have been condemned for setting a wrong precedence of international trials by substituting power with principle.

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  1. Brian R. (2014). Nuremberg Lives On: How Justice Jackson’s International Experience Continues to Shape Domestic Criminal Procedure. Loyola University Chicago Law Journal http://www.luc.edu/media/lucedu/law/students/publications/llj/pdfs/vol46/Gallini.pdf
  2. Holocaust Encyclopedia (1997). War Crime Trials: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Washington DC. https://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005140
  3. Jackson, R. (2016). The Influence of the Nuremberg Trial on International Criminal Law: Promoting Liberty under Law. Robert H. Jackson Center. New York. https://www.roberthjackson.org/speech-and-writing/the-influence-of-the-nuremberg-trial-on-international-criminal-law/
  4. Smith R. (2006). Japanese War Crime Trials: 20th-21st Century, Foreign Affairs, Historical Conflicts, Japanese, World War II. History Net. http://www.historynet.com/japanese-war-crime-trials.htm
  5. Wyzanski C. (1946), Nuremberg: A Fair Trial? A Dangerous Precedent. The Atlantic. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1946/04/nuremberg-a-fair-trial-a-dangerous-precedent/306492/
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