Bassiouni Kicks Off Nuremberg Conference

In his opening address for the School of Law’s “Judgment at Nuremberg” conference, M. Cherif Bassiouni  noted that while it can be difficult to reconcile the actual events at Nuremberg with its perceived legacies, the historic judgment can be used to reinforce our collective belief in fundamental human rights. 

Bassiouni, Cherif 

“The Nuremberg legacy represents not only our perception of what we would have liked it to be, but it represents our perception of what we want it to be for the future, as well,” noted Bassiouni, the Distinguished Research Professor of Law and president of the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul University College of Law. “It’s a projection of both our needs and our expectations. And as a projection of the needs and expectations, it doesn’t really have to rely too much on facts.”

Although limited to Western civilization, the moral/ethical legacy of Nuremberg is, perhaps, stronger than the actual legal and institutional legacies, he observed.

“It is difficult for us to say that in the age of globalization, we need to have complete freedom of movement of goods and money, but we don’t need to have complete freedom of movement of fundamental human values of justice and of protection of human rights,” he said. “If we accept that premise, then why not accept Nuremberg as the basis of it and build upon it? After all, it is a way of reinforcing our social values, a way of reinforcing our beliefs.” 

In terms of the historical context at the time of Nuremberg, Bassiouni observed: “By the time Whitney (Harris) came on the scene and he wanted to prosecute tyranny, he had to find ‘crimes against peace’ as a viable international crime. Was there such a thing, to be perfectly honest? I don’t think there was, but we needed it, and so we made it.”

Drawing on his own experience prosecuting rape in the former Yugoslavia, Bassiouni spoke of the practical, political, cultural, and economic difficulties of prosecuting crimes against humanity. He also stressed that the success of Nuremberg should be viewed within a cultural context.

“What is there in a word that can mean something for so many people and for such a long period of time? What is it in the word Nuremberg? Nuremberg. Nuremberg. Nuremberga?” Bassiouni asked, echoing Victor Hugo’s poem about the battle of Waterloo, which begins by repeating the name of that historic site.

“I thought to myself, the difference varies enormously,” he continued. “As I traveled for almost two years crisscrossing Afghanistan, there is no doubt that the word (Nuremberg) had absolutely no echo. It didn’t resonate in the minds of anybody, and it meant very little. As I crisscrossed Iraq for the last three years, I found almost the same, even though there were many more people in Iraq who knew of the historic fact. But it really didn’t mean much to them. And so, we can immediately see, if I can use the term ‘the cultural relativism’ of the meaning of a legacy.” 

Commemorating the 60th anniversary of the international military tribunal, the "Judgment at Nuremberg"  conference runs September 29 through October 1, 2006. It is sponsored by the School of Law and its Whitney R. Harris Institute for Global Legal Studies and Washington University's Department of Philosophy, in collaboration with the Robert H. Jackson Center, the American Bar Association Section on International Law, and the American Society of International Law. Law professors Leila Sadat and John Haley and philosophy professor Larry May are the conference organizers.

Bassiouni’s lecture on “The Legal and Moral Legacy of Nuremberg and its Impact on International Criminal Justice” was also part of the School of Law’s  Public Interest Law & Policy Speakers Series. 

Other highlights of the conference include:

  • A commemorative program honoring three of the Nuremberg trials' surviving United States prosecutors — Benjamin B. Ferencz, Whitney R. Harris, and Henry T. King Jr.
  • A full schedule of speakers and panels including presentations by Philippe Kirsch, president of the International Criminal Court; Patricia Wald, a former judge for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia; and Richard Goldstone, former justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa.
  • The showing of two documentaries: Nuremberg and The Nuremberg Trials: The Third Reich's Inhumanity to Man on Trial. 
  • An exhibit of photographs and rare documents depicting Nazi Germany and the prosecution of Hitler's chief advisers.

Click here to view a news release on the conference.

Click here for KWMU's interview of Professor Sadat.  

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