NOTE: “The Nuremberg Charter and the War in Gaza” appeared in Counterpunch on November 7, 2023.
“In preparation for the Nazi war crimes trials in 1945, representatives of Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States met to discuss the legal basis of the proceedings. They produced on August 8, 1945, the London Charter of the International Military Tribunal, a document that subsequently became known as the Nuremberg Charter in reference to the German city where the major trials would take place from November 20, 1945, to October 1, 1946. Subsequent proceedings would be held there from December 1946 to April 1949.
Under the section titled “Jurisdiction and General Principles,” Article 6 defines the types of crimes that would be considered by the international tribunal: wars of aggression, resulting destruction of public or private property, as well as devastation of cities, towns, or villages. The language Article 6 is peremptory throughout.
Under “Crimes against Humanity,” for example, the Nuremberg Charter specifically proscribes “murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war.” The Charter does not allow any exceptions to the rule forbidding the programmatic slaughter and maiming of civilian populations and the destruction of their communities. Such a policy is always wrong, no matter who invokes it and regardless of any proffered justifications.
In an addendum to the “Crimes against Humanity” segment of Article 6, the Nuremberg Charter states, “Leaders, organizers, instigators, and accomplices participating in the formulation or execution of a common plan or conspiracy to commit any of the foregoing crimes are responsible for all acts performed by any persons in execution of such a plan.”
On the basis of Nuremberg Charter principles, the international tribunal handed down guilty verdicts against twenty-one of the original twenty-four defendants, including twelve death sentences. The rest received sentences ranging from ten years to life in prison. Of the 185 defendants tried between 1946 and 1949, twelve of them went to the gallows. In addition, the judges gave eight defendants life sentences and seventy-seven others prison terms of varying lengths of time.
How might the war in Gaza might be judged in the light of the Nuremberg Charter principles? The “Crimes Against Humanity” language furnishes no basis for the rationale that thousands of Palestinians must be killed or maimed, and their communities destroyed so that Israel may exercise the right to defend itself.
The Charter shows no interest at all in the historical context of civilian massacres. They are always evil, no matter which side in a given conflict bears responsibility for the outbreak of hostilities. By this reasoning, the tragic events of October 7th cannot justify in any way the murder of innocent civilians as acceptable collateral damage in a war against Hamas.
According to the remorselessly unforgiving language of the “Crimes against Humanity” section of Article 6, the Hamas attacks of October 7th also must be condemned without making any allowance for the extenuating circumstances of Palestinian oppression at the hands of the Israeli government. Israeli innocents died that day. There can be no moral justification for what happened to them.
Yet the Palestinians have been and remain among the most oppressed people on earth. The wretched conditions imposed by the Israeli government in Gaza constitute a longstanding scandal. The second-class and worse status of Palestinians in the West Bank and the terror visited upon them by fanatical Israeli settlers add to the combustible materials of a country always on the edge of war or revolution. The Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu has done nothing to alleviate any of the underlying causes of the events of October 7th. The truly surprising fact of that day concerns why an uprising of some kind did not happen sooner.
For the Israeli status quo, the United States serves as chief funder, weapons supplier, and defender. It follows that in the long-term tragic plight of the Palestinians and now in the ghastly events unfolding in Gaza the pejorative word “accomplice” in the Nuremberg Charter applies to us. The metastasizing hatred in the Muslim countries, the Global South generally, and much of the rest of the world over the state terror unleashed against the Palestinian people will envelop us as well as the Israelis.
American complicity in actions deemed by Washington and the media to be the last word in Russian barbarism when perpetrated against innocent civilians in Ukraine now appear to be perfectly understandable when they occur against innocent civilians in Gaza. We may be forgiven if we conclude from these facts that the American position on terrorism amounts to a hand-on-heart declaration of loyalty to favored perpetrators of immoral violence while firmly standing on principle against the unfavored ones who invariably are discovered to be homicidal maniacs following in the path of Hitler, or in the case of the war in Ukraine, Stalin.
Some of the defendants in the Nuremberg trials pointed out the inconsistency of the prosecution in selecting Nazi violence for special legal notice while ignoring cases of an equal or even more egregious character. They wondered, for example, how the international military tribunal sitting in judgment on them came to include Russian judges representing the greatest tyranny and worst mass murderer in history. They did not get very far with that strategy. The victors decide such matters according to their own interests.