Punishment and Prevention of War Crimes

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Punishment and Prevention of War Crimes


By: League of Nations

Date: October 10, 1943

Source: League of Nations. "Resolutions of the Executive Committee of the League of Nations Union." Executive Committee of the League of Nations Union, October 10, 1943.

About the Author: The League of Nations formed in 1919 as part of the postwar accords from World War I. U.S. President Woodrow Wilson first presented the idea of the League in his Fourteen Points Speech on January 8, 1918. Wilson initially called his plan The Covenant of the League of Nations, and through his work the League became Section I of the Treaty of Versailles. January 10, 1920 saw the ratification of the treaty, and the official formation of the League of Nations. It first met in Geneva on November 15, 1920, and twenty nations joined. The League was intended to prevent future hostilities through mediation and non-violent intervention, but many countries withdrew from the League and the United States never joined. Scholars note that the United States' failure to join the League caused many countries to withdraw their support for it. During World War II, the allied powers still worked under the auspices of the League until the formation of the United Nations at the Yalta Conference in February 1945. The United Nations replaced the League of Nations after World War II.


During World War II, technology increased the intensity of warfare, and racial and ethnic divisions heightened the level of wartime brutalities. Operation Barbarossa saw Soviet Union troops and German troops committing highly intense acts of wartime cruelties upon each other. Postwar testimonies from German and Soviet soldiers attest that both sides used dead bodies as target practice, large massacres of civilians and troops took place, and other atrocities occurred. In the battle between the United States and Japan, scholars have deemed it a "war without mercy." Popular magazines captured cover images of women proudly holding up the skulls of Japanese soldiers. These skulls, and other bones, had been shipped to them from their Marine fiancés and husbands. President Franklin Roosevelt refused to accept a letter opener carved from the bones of a Japanese soldier, and keeping bones and body parts as souvenirs was so customary that customs officials had to ask individuals to declare their bones upon entry into the country.

In addition to the hostilities of the battlefield, and the efforts of soldiers to elevate their morale and feel justified in their actions, the general public became more aware of the German atrocities of war. Scholars do not know when the Germans decided to massacre Jews, nor do they know how the decision was made. Historians debate if Hitler initiated the extermination programs of the Third Reich or if his subordinates encouraged the idea, but they generally agree that at some point Hitler approved of the program. In the summer of 1941, indiscriminate killing of Jews officially began in conquered areas of the Soviet Union, and at the Wannsee Conference (a suburb of Berlin) the details of the Final Solution were laid out. The plan called for the continued deportation of Jews to Concentration Camps, immediate death for the very young, old, or those unable to work, segregation by gender, and death through forced labor and lack of food. Finally, any remaining Jews would be killed at the end of the war.

As the Nazis pushed forward on their plans for Jewish extermination, Allied leaders began to receive more concrete evidence concerning the German Concentration Camps and extermination facilities. More so, in 1943 the Germans began losing ground in the war; they were no longer gaining territory, their economy was suffering from overexertion, and Germany began to lose some of its war gains. The turn in the German warfront caused Hitler and his leaders to intensify their plans for exterminating the Jews. News from liberated zones and camps quickly spread to world media outlets, and the international public outcry against the treatment of European Jews superseded many local racisms and hostilities. For instance, in the United States, long-standing fears and hatred of Jews and other ethnic groups prohibited certain individuals from obtaining jobs and housing. Yet, the news of the Holocaust (that is, Germany's Concentration Camps and extermination programs) forced President Roosevelt to reverse national policy. Previously, the United States had refused entry to European refugees, and in February 1942 Roosevelt ordered the internment of Japanese-Americans living on the west coast. In 1943, the federal government began allowing internees to leave Internment Camps. Initially, they were not allowed to return to the west coast, but in early 1944 this policy changed. Some individuals were allowed to return to their previous homes. In June 1944, Roosevelt brought one thousand refugees from Europe to the United States as his personal guests in Washington DC. These policy changes reflected the international community, the lack of tolerance for the unlawful imprisonment of individuals, and an international desire to end the hostilities of World War II—locally and internationally. The world community had grown tired of warfare, and the escalating brutalities of the battlefield shocked individuals. Additionally, policy changes reflected international agreements that aimed to prevent future retribution by victims of war crimes.



Punishment of War Criminals The Executive Committee of the League of National Union recognizes that war cannot be made humane. But acts of violence permissible to a belligerent are strictly defined and limited by rules of International Law.

The charge against the Germans and their Allies is that, in defiance of these rules, they have carried out a system of terrorism by slaughter, outrage and torture, not to speak of robbery and destruction, unjustified by any military necessity and aimed at men, women and children of all ages and in certain cases dictated by racial or religious prejudice as in the wholesale massacre of Jews.

In order to re-establish the principles of Law, to satisfy the legitimate indignation cause by these horrors, and to prevent retaliatory massacres, the Executive Committee believes that it is essential that those individuals, whoever they may be, who are accused of having ordered or carried out such crimes should be brought before courts of justice which shall, after open and rigorously fair trial, pass sentence on any persons convicted of the offenses charged against them.

Where possible, the Committee hopes that the Courts will be international in character.

The Committee welcomes the assurance by the Government that they are taking preparatory steps in the direction indicated and it trusts that, as and when enemyoccupied territory comes under United Nations control, they will secure all known suspected persons there. It also hopes that it may be possible to prevent such persons escaping from justice into neutral territory and that, if they do so escape, the United Nations will require their surrender.

Prevention, where possible, of further War Crimes The Committee considers that it is of the utmost importance that all possible steps should be taken by the United Nations to remove persons criminally threatened with violence in the countries occupied by Nazi forces. In particular, as territories are in process of liberation, the strongest pressure should be put on those still in control of them to abstain for any violence against the inhabitants, to remove all discriminative measures, especially those against the Jews, and to rescue as many as possible who might still be in danger of attack.

At the same meeting it was resolved that,

The Committee is of opinion that no person figuring on the list of wanted war criminals of any of the United Nations should, on grounds of military expediency or for any other reason, be entrusted with any post of confidence.


The Nuremburg Trials were held in Nuremburg, Germany from October 1945 to October 1946. The trials maintained the League's affirmations that those responsible for the Holocaust and various other war crimes of World War II would be held liable. War crimes brought before international courts tended to be of the worst kind. The most notable of these crimes were the German Concentration Camps. The first of these war crime trials occurred in Krasnodar, Soviet Union, in July 1943. Thirteen Soviet citizens were tried for more than seven thousand acts of murder. Three of the individuals received twenty-year prison sentences, and eight were hanged.

After the Nuremburg Trials, numerous other trials occurred. These cases were tried in a variety of places where the crimes occurred, such as France, Italy, and the Soviet Union. After 1946, most of those tried were not high-ranking officials, and many participants and facilitators of war crimes never faced charges.

After World War II, the United Nations continued to develop treaties and organizations and implemented measures to prevent future wartime atrocities. The Geneva Convention, being the most notable of the post-World-War-II actions, drafted concise definitions for the treatment of wartime prisoners, the execution of international and wartime criminals, and other aspects of war actions. The Geneva Convention drafted its articles in August 1949, and on October 21, 1950, the United Nations entered them into force. These measures have strengthened the international community and helped to define acts of torture and inhumane treatment that still occur—in 1999, hundreds of ethnic Albanians were executed in conflicts with Serbian police forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army. As recently as March 2006, U.S. Marines received indictments for the deaths of Iraqi civilians and soldiers. The outcomes of these trials have not yet been determined.



Browning, Christopher R. The Path to Genocide: Essays On Launching the Final Solution. Cambridge, U.K. and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Gruber, Ruth. Haven: The Dramatic Story of 1,000 World War II Refugees and How They Came to America. New York: Three Rivers Press, 2000.


Combs, Nancy Amoury. "Copping a Plea to Genocide: The Plea Bargaining of International War Crimes." University of Pennsylvania Law Review. 151, 1 (November 2002): 1-157.

Web sites

Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. "International Human Rights Instruments." 〈http://www.unhchr.ch/html/intlinst.htm〉 (accessed May 3, 2006).

U.S. Department of State. "War Crime Issues." 〈http://www.state.gov/s/wci〉 (accessed May 3, 2006).