A reflection on past war crimes and today’s crimes against humanity


“The capacity to kill human beings has grown faster than our capacity to meet their vital and justified needs. Nobody wins in war; the only winner is death. Now that I am approaching my 100th year I am trying to reverse that, but it will take a long time,” said Ben Ferencz, one of the prosecutors of the Nuremberg war crime trials.

Portrait of Benjamin Ferencz taken in Leiden, Netherlands, September 2014. © ROBIN UTRECHT / BELGA MAG / BELGAFerencz was speaking during the latest in a series of high levels dialogues with UN Human Rights Chief Zeid to reflect on relevance of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 70 years on.

At only 27 years old, Ferencz became Chief Prosecutor for the United States in the Einsatzgruppen Case, which was called "the biggest murder trial in history," during which 22 defendants were charged with murdering over a million people. It was Ferencz’s first case.

“The idea that there is a first, these chauvinistic nationalisms, betray the sense that we all have universal rights that ought to be respected by all Governments,” Zeid said. He recalled that the 22 Einsatzgruppen defendants were highly educated people who, despite the heinous barbarity and the appalling consequences of their crimes, felt no remorse but rather rationalised their war making.

For Ferencz, humanity has glorified war for centuries to the extent that it has become a deeply felt philosophical problem that cannot be ended simply telling opponents that they are wrong.

“When leaders don’t agree they send young people to kill the other young people … until they get tired of killing each other,” Ferencz said. “They spend all their money to improve weapons to kill people instead of using it on legitimate concerns of the people who are so distressed by their living conditions that they cry out in panic and fear, and commit all kinds of acts that we call terrorism in an effort to improve their own conditions.”

“As you have said, humanity needs to graduate to a point where war becomes unthinkable, not a tool for achieving certain objectives because, ultimately, in itself it engenders so much criminal activity that it has to be rendered unlawful completely,” Zeid added.

Both Ferencz and Zeid agreed that changing mentalities would be a lengthy endeavour. It was at the time of the Allies’ trials at the end of World War II that Ferencz started working on creating an international criminal court.

“In recognition, when that court got its first international case in The Hague they called me to do the closing remarks for the prosecution. I was 92,” Ferencz recalled humorously. “But when I see the progress, I get optimistic!”

During his engagement in the army, Ferencz witnessed up close the atrocities of World War II and, towards the end of the conflict, he became the first officer in the United States army assigned to carry out the Allies’ promise to prosecute war crimes. After having ended the war, and caught and tried the criminals, the next step was to provide redress for the victims.

“If you do a wrongful injury, you have the obligation to make good; either repair the injury or compensate the injury,” Ferencz said.

Reflecting on current trends, Zeid pointed out that Europe was witnessing a resurgence of antisemitism and growing hostility towards migrant communities.

“Once again, the fight is on. Maybe it never left us. It is a continuous struggle for those of us who believe in humanity without distinction, without pasting labels or differentiating,” Zeid said. “We are all humans entitled to equal rights, we deserve to live in dignity, without deprivation, discrimination or fear

Zeid also referred to the statement that Ferencz issued when it was recently revealed that the US Government separated migrant families who were entering into the territory without a visa. Ferencz, himself a migrant who moved with his family to the US from Hungary when he was only 10 months old, said it was painful for him to watch children being separated from their parents.

“I was furious that anybody would think it was permissible to take young children away from their parents and make the parents go to another country. It’s a crime against humanity!” he said.

“When we list crimes against humanity in the statutes of the International Criminal Court, we have ‘other inhumane acts designed to cause great suffering’. What could cause greater suffering then what they did in the name of immigration law?” Ferenz asked. “We have to change the law if it’s the law.”

“I was furious and the students were furious and that gave me a lot of encouragement. I don’t place my hope in diplomats to make change, or the national politicians either because the countries are divided. The future lies with young people,” he added.

You can watch below the entire conversation between Ferencz and Zeid that was recorded early August in New York, United States.


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8 August 2018

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