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  :LIbrary Treaties The Nuremberg Principles, Commentary by David Krieger, 1996

Nuremberg and Nuclear Weapons
By David Krieger

The principle message of the Nuremberg trials is that individuals are responsible for what they do, and will be held accountable for committing serious crimes under international law. At Nuremberg, these serious crimes included crimes against peace (that is, planning, preparing for, or participating in acts of aggressive warfare), war crimes, and crimes against humanity.

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One of the great ironies of history or perhaps it is not such a great irony is that the Charter establishing the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg was signed on August 8, 1945. That was just three months after the German surrender. More importantly, it was just two days after the first nuclear weapon was used in warfare on the city of Hiroshima, and one day prior to a nuclear weapon being used on the city of Nagasaki. The nuclear weapon used on Hiroshima, with an equivalent force of some 15 kilotons of TNT, killed some 70,000 to 90,000 people immediately and some 140,000 by the end of 1945. The bomb dropped on Nagasaki, with an equivalent force of some 20 kilotons of TNT, killed some 35,000 to 40,000 people immediately and some 70,000 by the end of 1945.

It has been pointed out that the number of people who died immediately from the use of each of these nuclear weapons was less than the number of people who died in Tokyo on the night of March 9-10, 1945 as a result of U.S. bombing raids. This number is estimated at approximately 100,000. The major difference between the Tokyo bombings and those of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is that the former took some one thousand sorties to accomplish, while the destruction of the latter two cities took only one bomb each.

I think it is reasonable to speculate that if the Germans had had two or three atomic bombs, as we did at that time, and had used them on European cities prior to being defeated in the Second World War, we would have attempted to hold accountable those who created, authorized, and carried out these bombings. We would likely have considered the use of these weapons on cities by the Nazi leaders as among the most serious of their crimes.

The irony of history, of course, is that the Germans did not develop nor use atomic weapons, and thus this issue never came before the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, or before any other international tribunal. The record of the past 50 years reflects the consequences of this lack of accountability, namely, the nuclear arms race pursued by the United States and the former Soviet Union, which lasted until the end of the Cold War in approximately 1990.

The question which I want to address is not whether war crimes were committed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Under the rules of international humanitarian law they were, and they were also committed by the bombings of London, Coventry, Hamburg, Dresden and Tokyo. The primary targets of all these bombings were civilians, and the indiscriminate killing of civilians has always in modern times been understood to be a clear violation of the laws of war.

Nuclear Weapons and International Law

The more relevant question has to do with where we stand today. On July 8, 1996, the International Court of Justice in the Hague issued an opinion on the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons. Actually, two questions were placed before the Court for advisory opinions. The first question, posed by the World Health Organization in May 1993, asked: "In view of the health and environmental effects, would the use of nuclear weapons by a state in war or other armed conflict be a breach of its obligations under international law?"

The second question, put to the Court by the General Assembly of the United Nations in December 1994, asked: "Is the threat or the use of nuclear weapons in any circumstances permitted under international law?"


The International Court of Justice found that the question asked by the World Health Organization, as a legal question, fell outside the scope of activities of the organization, and thus declined to accept jurisdiction. On the question posed by the United Nations General Assembly, however, the Court did find jurisdiction, and issued an advisory opinion.

In a multi-part answer to the question, the Court found the following: "...that the threat or use of nuclear weapons would generally be contrary to the rules of international law applicable in armed conflict, and in particular the principles and rules of humanitarian law.

"However, in view of the current state of international law, and of the elements of fact at its disposal, the Court cannot conclude definitively whether the threat or use of nuclear weapons would be lawful or unlawful in an extreme circumstance of self-defence, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake."

In reaching this opinion, the Court dramatically reduced the possible circumstances in which nuclear weapons could be threatened or used in conformity with international law. The Court left open only the slim possibility of legality under "an extreme circumstance of self-defense, in which the very survival of a State would be at stake." Even in this circumstance, the Court did not say that such use would be legal; it said only that it could not determine legality under these conditions. Judge Bedjaoui, the president of the Court, said in his declaration upon releasing the Court's opinion, "I cannot insist strongly enough on the fact that the inability of the Court to go beyond the statement it made can in no way be interpreted as a partially-opened door through which it recognizes the legality of the threat or use of nuclear weapons."

Judge Bedjaoui went further to describe nuclear weapons as "blind weapons" that "destabilize, by their very nature, humanitarian law, the law of distinguishing in the use of weapons." He continued, "Nuclear weapons, absolute evil, destabilize humanitarian law in so far as the law of the lesser evil. Thus, the very existence of nuclear weapons constitutes a great defiance (challenge) to humanitarian law itself.... Nuclear war and humanitarian law seem, consequently, two antithesis which radically exclude each other, the existence of one necessarily supposing the non-existence of the other."

Where does this leave us today? Although the opinion of the Court is an advisory opinion, it is the most authoritative statement of international law on this question, and must be taken seriously. Thus far, however, there have been no statements made by any of the declared or undeclared nuclear weapons states indicating that they plan any changes in their nuclear policies as a result of the Court's opinion.

Individual Accountability

We know what the Principles of Nuremberg tell us about individual accountability. The primary principle is that "Any person who commits an act which constitutes a crime under international law is responsible therefor and liable to punishment." The fact that there is no penalty for the act under internal law does not relieve the person who committed the act from responsibility under international law. Nor does the fact that the person acted as a Head of State or as a responsible government official relieve that person of responsibility. Nor does the fact that the person acted pursuant to superior orders, so long as a choice was in fact possible to him, relieve him of responsibility.

It was the United States, along with the UK, France, and Soviet Union, that created the Nuremberg Principles after the Second World War by holding Nazi and other Axis leaders accountable for their crimes under international law. I submit that if we want to create a world community that lives under international law in the 21st Century, we must apply the Nuremberg Principles to one and all, equally and without prejudice. That means we must apply these Principles to ourselves as well as to others. If the threat or use of nuclear weapons is, in fact, illegal under international law in virtually every conceivable circumstance, then we must act accordingly and neither use nor threaten the use of these weapons. Instead, we must dismantle our nuclear arsenal subject to agreement with other nuclear weapons states. In the meantime, we must explain to all military personnel with responsibilities for nuclear weapons the criminality under international law attendant to the threat or use of these weapons.

Military organizations must operate under the law, and that clearly includes the international law of armed conflict. If military organizations do not operate under the law, then are they any better than state-organized thugs? It was for violating the laws of war at My Lai that Lt. Calley was tried and convicted. Lt. Calley's crimes, terrible though they were, would pale in comparison to the crime of again using nuclear weapons on cities filled with innocent people.

The International Court of Justice added to their opinion a clarification of Article VI of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. The Court unanimously found that: "There exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects under strict and effective international control."

The Court has clearly indicated that the nuclear weapons states have an obligation to negotiate in good faith not only for nuclear disarmament, but for nuclear disarmament "in all its aspects" and to bring these negotiations to a conclusion. In the aftermath of the Cold War, we have been moving far too slowly to attain this goal. It is a necessary goal so that no other city will ever again have to face the consequences of what happened at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the future of humanity will not be jeopardized.

The Need for a Permanent International Criminal Court

Even if the threat or use of nuclear weapons is unlawful under international law, however, there currently exists no tribunal where persons committing such acts can be brought to account. One of the shortcomings of the current international institutional structure is the lack of a permanent International Criminal Court.Two Ad Hoc Tribunals have been created by the United Nations Security Council one for the former Yugoslavia and one for Rwanda. The jurisdiction of both of these tribunals, however, is limited by time and space. It is perhaps ironic that while the effects of nuclear weapons are unlimited by either time or space, the jurisdiction of our international criminal tribunals is so limited.

In 1998 a treaty to establish an International criminal Court was agreed to in Rome. The Court will come into existence when its statute has been ratified by 60 countries. Experts predict that it could enter into force by 2002 or 2003. The treaty has now been ratified by 139 countries and ratified by 27.

Were nuclear weapons to be used by accident or design, the consequences would be horrible beyond our deepest fears. Nazis and other war criminals were convicted and punished in part for bringing human beings to the incinerators of the Holocaust. Nuclear weapons may be conceived of as portable crematoria, that bring incinerators to the people. In my view, the silence of the American, Russian, British, French, and Chinese people in the face of these potentially genocidal or omnicidal weapons is as disquieting as the silence of the Germans in the face of Nazi atrocities. Yet none of the people in countries possessing nuclear weapons today are facing the same fearful authoritarian rule that the Nazis imposed upon the Germans during World War II.

For many, perhaps most, people in nuclear weapons states today, nuclear weapons are not perceived as a critical issue. They are largely ignored. However, if they were to be used again, I think future historians, if there were any, would be very critical of our lack of commitment to ridding the world of these terrible weapons.

We have the opportunity, in fact the responsibility under the Nuremberg Principles, to speak out against these genocidal weapons, but for the most part we do not do so. We must break the silence that surrounds our reliance upon these weapons of mass destruction. A hopeful sign recently occurred at the State of the World Forum in San Francisco when General Lee Butler, a former commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, broke his personal silence and made a ringing plea to abolish nuclear weapons. "We can do better," he said, "than condone a world in which nuclear weapons are enshrined as the ultimate arbiter of conflict. The price already paid is too dear, the risks run too great. The nuclear beast must be chained, its soul expunged, its lair laid waste. The task is daunting but we cannot shrink from it. The opportunity may not come again."

It is within our grasp to end the nuclear weapons era, and begin the 21st Century with a reaffirmation of the Nuremberg Principles.

Steps That Need To Be Taken

1. The following confidence building measures proposed by the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons:

Taking nuclear forces off alert;

Removal of warheads from delivery vehicles;

Ending deployment of non-strategic nuclear weapons;

Initiating negotiations to further reduce United States and Russian nuclear arsenals; and

Agreement amongst the nuclear weapons states of reciprocal no-first-use undertakings, and of a non-use undertaking by them in relation to the non-nuclear weapons states.

2. International agreement on a Nuclear Weapons Convention that, under strict international control, would eliminate all nuclear weapons within a reasonable period of time and prohibit their possession.

3. The entry into force of the treaty for a permanent International Criminal Court to hold all individuals, regardless of their rank or nationality, accountable for acts constituting crimes under international law. Considerable progress has been made in preparing such a treaty at the United Nations. It may be hoped that this treaty will be ready to be opened for signatures in 1998, and certainly by 1999 when a third International Peace Conference is convened in the Hague.

David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.