International Conference on Military Trials—Agreement and Charter Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

As early as December 1942, the three main Allied powers of World War II—the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union—had issued a statement condemning the Nazi regime's policy of exterminating European Jews, and had resolved to prosecute those responsible when the war was over. As Allied troops liberated German-held territory during 1944 and early 1945, they came across many of the concentration camps operated by the Nazis, and were appalled at what they found. By the time the war was over, many were determined to seek justice for the victims of what became known as the Holocaust by trying and punishing the architects of what the Nazis euphemistically called the “Final Solution.” The Agreement and Charter of the International Conference on Military Trials, otherwise known as the Nuremberg Charter, established the legal mechanism by which the victorious Allies would try the Nazi leadership for war crimes.

Summary Overview

As early as December 1942, the three main Allied powers of World War II—the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union—had issued a statement condemning the Nazi regime's policy of exterminating European Jews, and had resolved to prosecute those responsible when the war was over. As Allied troops liberated German-held territory during 1944 and early 1945, they came across many of the concentration camps operated by the Nazis, and were appalled at what they found. By the time the war was over, many were determined to seek justice for the victims of what became known as the Holocaust by trying and punishing the architects of what the Nazis euphemistically called the “Final Solution.” The Agreement and Charter of the International Conference on Military Trials, otherwise known as the Nuremberg Charter, established the legal mechanism by which the victorious Allies would try the Nazi leadership for war crimes.

Defining Moment

By the time World War II came to an end, the basic facts of the Holocaust—in which some 6 million European Jews died, along with an estimated 5 million others considered undesirable by the Nazis—were well known by Allied leaders, and pressure mounted to bring the responsible leaders to justice. These were not the routine atrocities of war with which those who studied history were familiar; the representatives of the Allies who met at the International Conference on Military Trials in London from June 26 until August 8, 1945, declared that these were something new: they were “crimes against humanity.”

At the conclusion of World War I, there had been discussion of a possible tribunal to try those the Allied leaders considered responsible for starting the war and those who committed atrocities during the fighting. No such trials ever took place, as the Allies allowed Germany and the Ottoman Empire to try those considered war criminals under their own domestic laws. However, this was less than satisfactory to many, and Allied leaders were determined not to allow a similarly attenuated justice at the end of World War II.

However, trying the Nazi leadership was not an easy proposition, as each of the four nations represented at the London conference—the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and France— had different judicial traditions. At the beginning of the conference, not all of the Allied leaders even agreed that international trials were the best way to deal with the Nazi leaders: British prime minister Winston Churchill was quoted as preferring summary execution (execution without a trial). However, the American president, Harry S. Truman, argued that by trying the Nazis, later generations would be less likely to argue that the Nazis were executed without any evidence of their crimes.

However, the idea of staging an international trial, under international law, was new, and not approved of by all jurists in many of the Allied nations. The leaders at the London conference decided to limit the jurisdiction of the tribunal they were creating to actions taken during the pursuit of an international war that they considered illegal. The document produced at the end of the conference, the Nuremberg Charter, outlined the mechanisms that would ensure that the trials were conducted equitably and that the punishments called for by the tribunal would have legal justification.

Author Biography

The authors of the Nuremberg Charter were all noted jurists, many of whom would go on to play influential roles at the Nuremberg Trials that followed. Robert H. Jackson was an associate justice of the US Supreme Court whom Truman asked to lead the prosecution. Robert Falco, who served on the Nuremberg tribunal, was a French judge from the Paris Court of Appeals who had lost his position in 1944 because of his Jewish heritage. William Jowitt had been the British solicitor general, with a long career as an attorney and member of Parliament. Iona Nikitchenko was a judge in the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union. Aron Trainin was a professor and Soviet jurist who was influential in designing the Soviet legal system. Far from a united group, each of the signatories had their own views of how the Nazi leadership should be prosecuted, ranging from Jackson's reliance on the proceedings as justification for the punishments, to Nikitchenko's view that the outcomes of the trials were already decided.

Historical Document

AGREEMENT by the Government of the UNITED STATES OF AMERICA, the Provisional Government of the FRENCH REPUBLIC, the Government of the UNITED KINGDOM OF GREAT BRITAIN AND NORTHERN IRELAND and the Government of the UNI0N Of SOVIET SOCIALIST REPUPLICS for the Prosecution and Punishment of the MAJOR WAR CRIMINALS of the EUROPEAN Axis

WHEREAS the United Nations have from time to time made declarations of their intention that War Criminals shall be brought to justice;

AND WHEREAS the Moscow Declaration of the 30th October 1943 on German atrocities in Occupied Europe stated that those German Officers and men and members of the Nazi Party who have been responsible for or have taken a consenting part in atrocities and crimes will be sent back to the countries in which their abominable deeds were done in order that they may be judged and punished according to the laws of these liberated countries and of the free Governments that will be created therein;

AND WHEREAS this Declaration was stated to be without prejudice to the case of major criminals whose offenses have no particular geographical location and who will be punished by the joint decision of the Governments of the Allies;

Now THEREFORE the Government of the United States of America, the Provisional Government of the French Republic, the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (hereinafter called “the Signatories”) acting in the interests of all the United Nations and by their representatives duly authorized thereto have concluded this Agreement.

Article 1. There shall be established after consultation with the Control Council for Germany an International Military Tribunal for the trial of war criminals whose offenses have no particular geographical location whether they be accused individually or in their capacity as members of organizations or groups or in both capacities.

Article 2. The constitution, jurisdiction and functions of the International Military Tribunal shall be those set out in the Charter annexed to this Agreement, which Charter shall form. an integral part of this Agreement.

Article 3. Each of the Signatories shall take the necessary steps to make available for the investigation of the charges and trial the major war criminals detained by them who are to be tried by the International Military Tribunal. The Signatories shall also use their best endeavors to make available for investigation of the charges against and the trial before the International Military Tribunal such of the major war criminals as are not in the territories of any of the Signatories.

Article 4. Nothing in this Agreement shall prejudice the provisions established by the Moscow Declaration concerning the return of war criminals to the countries where they committed their crimes.

Article 5. Any Government of the United Nations may adhere to this Agreement by notice given through the diplomatic channel to the Government of the United Kingdom, who shall inform the other signatory and adhering Governments of each such adherence.

Article 6. Nothing in this Agreement shall prejudice the jurisdiction or the powers of any national or occupation court established or to be established in any allied territory or in Germany for the trial of war criminals.

Article 7. This Agreement shall come into force on the day of signature and shall remain in force for the period of one year and shall continue thereafter, subject to the right of any Signatory to give, through the diplomatic channel, one month's notice of intention to terminate it. Such termination shall not prejudice any proceedings already taken or any findings already made in pursuance of this Agreement.

IN WITNESS WHEREOF the Undersigned have signed the present Agreement.

DONNE in quadruplicate in London this 8th, day of August 1945 each in English, French and Russian, and each text to have equal authenticity.

For the Government of the United States of America

ROBERT H. JACKSON

For the Provisional Government of the French Republic

ROBERT FALCO

For the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

JOWITT C.

For the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics

I. NIKITCHENKO

A. TRAININ

***

Charter of the International Military Tribunal

1. CONSTITUTION OF THE INTERNATIONAL MILITARY TRIBUNAL

Article 1. In pursuance of the Agreement signed on the 8th, day of August 1945 by the Government of the United States of America, the Provisional Government of the French Republic, the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Government of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, there shall be established an International Military Tribunal (hereinafter called “the Tribunal”) for the just and prompt trial and punishment of the major war criminals of the European Axis.

Article 2. The Tribunal shall consist of four members, each with an alternate. One member and one alternate shall be appointed by each of the Signatories. The alternates shall, so -far as they are able, be present at all sessions of the Tribunal. In case of illness of any member of the Tribunal or his incapacity for some other reason to fulfill his functions, his alternate shall take his place.

Article 3. Neither the Tribunal, its members nor their alternates can be challenged by the prosecution, or by the Defendants or their Counsel. Each Signatory may replace its member of the Tribunal or his alternate for reasons of health or for other good reasons, except that no replacement may take place during a Trial, other than by an alternate.

Article 4.

(a) The presence of all four members of the Tribunal or the alternate for any absent member shall be necessary to constitute the quorum.

(b) The members of the Tribunal shall, before any trial begins, agree among themselves upon the selection from their number of a President, and the President shall hold office during that trial, or as may otherwise be agreed by a vote of not less than three members. The principle of rotation of presidency for successive trials is agreed. If, however, a session of the Tribunal takes place on the territory of one of the four Signatories, the representative of that Signatory on the Tribunal shall preside.

(c) Save as aforesaid the Tribunal shall take decisions by a majority vote and in case the votes are evenly divided, the vote of the President shall be decisive: provided always that convictions and sentences shall only be imposed by affirmative votes of at least three members of the Tribunal.

Article 5. In case of need and depending on the number of the matters to be tried, other Tribunals may be set up; and the establishment, functions, and procedure of each Tribunal shall be identical, and shall be governed by this Charter.

II. JURISDICTION AND GENERAL PRINCIPLES

Article 6. The Tribunal established by the Agreement referred to in Article 1 hereof for the trial and punishment of the major war criminals of the European Axis countries shall have the power to try and punish persons who, acting in the interests of the European Axis countries, whether as individuals or as members of organizations, committed any of the following crimes.

The following acts, or any of them, are crimes coming within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal for which, there shall be individual responsibility:

(a) CRIMES AGAINST PEACE: namely, planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances, or participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing;

(b) WAR CRIMES: namely, violations of the laws or customs of war. Such violations shall include, but not be limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave labor or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity;

(c) CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY: namely, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war; or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.

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 plan.

Article 7. The official position of defendants, whether as Heads of State or responsible officials in Government Departments, shall not be considered as freeing them from responsibility or mitigating punishment.

Article 8. The fact that the Defendant acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior shall not free him from responsibility, but may be considered in mitigation of punishment if the Tribunal determines that justice so requires.

Article 9. At the trial of any individual member of any group or organization the Tribunal may declare (in connection with any act of which the individual may be convicted) that the group or organization of which the individual was a member was a criminal organization.

After receipt of the Indictment the Tribunal shall give such notice as it thinks fit that the prosecution intends to ask the Tribunal to make such declaration and any member of the organization will be entitled to apply to the Tribunal for leave to be heard by the Tribunal upon the question of the criminal character of the organization. The Tribunal shall have power to allow or reject the application. If the application is allowed, the Tribunal may direct in what manner the applicants shall be represented and heard.

Article 10. In cases where a group or organization is declared criminal by the Tribunal, the competent national authority of any Signatory shall have the right to bring individuals to trial for membership therein before national, military or occupation courts. In any such case the criminal nature of the group or organization is considered proved and shall not be questioned.

Article 11. Any person convicted by the Tribunal may be charged before a national, military or occupation court, referred to in Article 10 of this Charter, with a crime other than of membership in a criminal group or organization and such court may, after convicting him, impose upon him punishment independent of and additional to the punishment imposed by the Tribunal for participation in the criminal activities of such group or organization.

Article 12. The Tribunal shall have the right to take proceedings against a person charged with crimes set out in Article 6 of this Charter in his absence, if he has not been found or if the Tribunal, for any reason, finds it necessary, in the interests of justice, to conduct the hearing in his absence.

Article 13. The Tribunal shall draw up rules for its procedure. These rules shall not be inconsistent with the provisions of this Charter.

Ill. COMMITTEE FOR THE INVESTIGATION AND PROSECUTION OF MAJOR WAR CRIMINALS

Article 14. Each Signatory shall appoint a Chief Prosecutor for the investigation of the charges against and the prosecution of major war criminals.

The Chief Prosecutors shall act as a committee for the following purposes:

(a) to agree upon a plan of the individual work of each of the Chief Prosecutors and his staff,

(b) to settle the final designation of major war criminals to be tried by the Tribunal,

(c) to approve the Indictment and the documents to be submitted therewith,

(d) to lodge the Indictment and the accompanying documents with the Tribunal,

(e) to draw up and recommend to the Tribunal for its approval draft rules of procedure, contemplated by Article 13 of this Charter. The Tribunal shall have power to accept, with or without amendments, or to reject, the rules so recommended.

The Committee shall act in all the above matters by a majority vote and shall appoint a Chairman as may be convenient and in accordance with the principle of rotation: provided that if there is an equal division of vote concerning the designation of a Defendant to be tried by the Tribunal, or the crimes with which he shall be charged, that proposal will be adopted which was made by the party which proposed that the particular Defendant be tried, or the particular charges be preferred against him.

Article 15. The Chief Prosecutors shall individually, and acting in collaboration with one another, also undertake the following duties:

(a) investigation, collection and production before or at the Trial of all necessary evidence,

(b) the preparation of the Indictment for approval by the Committee in accordance with paragraph (c) of Article 14 hereof,

(c) the preliminary examination of all necessary witnesses and of the Defendants,

(d) to act as prosecutor at the Trial,

(e) to appoint representatives to carry out such duties as may be assigned to them,

to undertake such other matters as may appear necessary to them for the purposes of the preparation for and conduct of the Trial.

It is understood that no witness or Defendant detained by any Signatory shall be taken out of the possession of that Signatory without its assent.

IV. FAIR TRIAL FOR DEFENDANTS

Article 16. In order to ensure fair trial for the Defendants, the following procedure shall be followed:

(a) The Indictment shall include full particulars specifying in detail the charges against the Defendants. A copy of the Indictment and of all the documents lodged with the Indictment, translated into a language which he understands, shall be furnished to the Defendant at a reasonable time before the Trial.

(b) During any preliminary examination or trial of a Defendant he shall have the right to give any explanation relevant to the charges made against him.

(c) A preliminary examination of a Defendant and his Trial shall be conducted in, or translated into, a language which the Defendant understands.

(d) A defendant shall have the right to conduct his own defense before the Tribunal or to have the assistance of Counsel.

(e) A defendant shall have the right through himself or through his Counsel to present evidence at the Trial in support of his defense, and to cross-examine any witness called by the Prosecution.

V. POWERS OF THE TRIBUNAL AND CONDUCT OF THE TRIAL

Article 17. The Tribunal shall have the power

(a) to summon witnesses to the Trial and to require their attendance and testimony and to put questions to them,

(b) to interrogate any Defendant,

(c) to require the production of documents and other evidentiary material,

(d) to administer oaths to witnesses,

(e) to appoint officers for the carrying out of any task designated by the Tribunal including the power to have evidence taken on commission.

Article 18. The Tribunal shall

(a) confine the Trial strictly to an expeditious hearing of the issues raised by the charges,

(b) take strict measures to prevent any action which will cause unreasonable delay, and rule out irrelevant issues and statements of any kind whatsoever,

(c) deal summarily with any contumacy, imposing appropriate punishment, including exclusion of any Defendant or his Counsel from some or all further proceedings, but without prejudice to the determination of the charges.

Article 19. The Tribunal shall not be bound by technical rules of evidence. It shall adopt and apply to the greatest possible extent expeditious and non-technical procedure, and shall admit any evidence which it deems to have probative value.

Article 20. The Tribunal may require to be informed of the nature of any evidence before it is offered so that it may rule upon the relevance thereof.

Article 21. The Tribunal shall not require proof of facts of common knowledge but shall take judicial notice thereof It shall also take judicial notice of official governmental documents and reports of the United Nations, including the acts and documents of the committees set up in the various allied countries for the investigation of war crimes, and the records and findings of military or other Tribunals of any of the United Nations.

Article 22. The permanent seat of the Tribunal shall be in Berlin. The first meetings of the members of the Tribunal and of the Chief Prosecutors shall be held at Berlin in a place to be designated by the Control Council for Germany. The first trial shall be held at Nuremberg, and any subsequent trials shall be held at such places as the Tribunal may decide.

Article 23. One or more of the Chief Prosecutors may take part in the prosecution at each Trial. The function of any Chief Prosecutor may be discharged by him personally, or by any person or persons authorized by him. The function of Counsel for a Defendant may be discharged at the Defendant's request by any Counsel professionally qualified to conduct cases before the Courts of his own country, or by any other person who may be specially authorized thereto by the Tribunal.

Article 24. The proceedings at the Trial shall take the following course:

(a) The Indictment shall be read in court.

(b) The Tribunal shall ask each Defendant whether he pleads “guilty” or “not guilty”.

(c) The prosecution shall make an opening statement.

(d) The Tribunal shall ask the prosecution and the defense what evidence (if any) they wish to submit to the Tribunal, and the Tribunal shall rule upon the admissibility of any such evidence.

(e) The witnesses for the Prosecution shall be examined and after that the witnesses for the Defense. Thereafter such rebutting evidence as may be held by the Tribunal to be admissible shall be called by either the Prosecution or the Defense.

(f) The Tribunal may put any question to any witness and to any Defendant, at any time.

(g) The Prosecution and the Defense shall interrogate and may cross-examine any witnesses and any Defendant who gives testimony.

(h) The Defense shall address the court.

(i) The Prosecution shall address the court.

(j) Each Defendant may make a statement to the Tribunal.

(k) The Tribunal shall deliver judgment and pronounce sentence.

Article 25. All official documents shall be produced, and all court proceedings conducted, in English, French and Russian, and in the language of the Defendant. So much of the record and of the proceedings may also be translated into the language of any country in which the Tribunal is sitting, as the Tribunal considers desirable in the interests of justice and public opinion.

VI. JUDGMENT AND SENTENCE

Article 26. The judgment of the Tribunal as to the guilt or the innocence of any Defendant shall give the reasons on which it is based, and shall be final and not subject to review.

Article 27. The Tribunal shall have the right to impose upon a Defendant, on conviction, death or such other punishment as shall be determined by it to be just.

Article 28. In addition to any punishment imposed by it, the Tribunal shall have the right to deprive the convicted person of any stolen property and order its delivery to the Control Council for Germany.

Article 29. In case of guilt, sentences shall be carried out in accordance with the orders of the Control Council for Germany, which may at any time reduce or otherwise alter the sentences, but may not increase the severity thereof. If the Control Council for Germany, after any Defendant has been convicted and sentenced, discovers fresh evidence which, in its opinion, would found a fresh charge against him, the Council shall report accordingly to the Committee established under Article 14 hereof , for such action as they may consider proper, having regard to the interests of justice.

VII EXPENSES

Article 30. The expenses of the Tribunal and of the Trials, shall be charged by the Signatories against the funds allotted for maintenance of the Control Council for Germany.

Glossary

contumacy: stubborn perverseness or rebelliousness; willful and obstinate resistance or disobedience to authority

mitigation: the act of making a condition or consequence less severe

probative: affording proof or evidence; serving or designed for testing or trial

Document Analysis

By the time representatives of the United States, Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union convened in London in July 1945, the war against Nazi Germany was over and the basic outline of how the war criminals of the Nazi regime would be dealt with had been agreed to in a series of meetings over the prior three years. The responsibility of those gathered at London was to codify those earlier discussions so as to create a legal framework for the trials that would follow. Abiding by such a charter would give the trials a legal legitimacy that simply executing the war criminals would not, and each of the articles in the charter sought to define, as precisely as possible, the legal justification and procedures for what would follow.

The first section gives the particulars on the tribunal and its reason for existence. Importantly, it clarifies the fact that it would not supersede national courts with regard to crimes that occur in a particular location. However, many of the Nazis stood accused of war crimes that had a wide or difficult-to-define geographical span, and these cases would be the province of the tribunal.

The main body of the charter gives the makeup of the tribunal, which “shall consist of four members, each with an alternate,” with each nation providing one of the members. Whereas in an American courtroom, the defendant's attorney could challenge the judge or the jury on the basis of bias, no such rights were provided to the Nazi defendants. The judges on the tribunal would select from among themselves a president, and his was to be the decisive vote in case of a tie.

The charter lists three types of crimes to be tried by the tribunal: crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Though war crimes trials had been held at the conclusion of past wars, crimes against peace and crimes against humanity were entirely new categories of offenses that the signers of the charter deemed necessary to create in order to cover the extent of the Nazi crimes of waging an aggressive war in violation of treaties and the atrocities and mass murders that made up the Holocaust.

The charter then goes on to list the job of the investigators, the rights of the defendants, and the extent of the powers of the tribunal in terms of conduct of the trials and sentencing. But though these rights may seem similar to those found in Western courtrooms, the protections afforded to the Nazi war criminals fell far short of what would be found elsewhere.

Essential Themes

Less than two months after the signing of the Nuremberg Charter, the indictments began. Twenty-four Nazi leaders—including Luftwaffe commander and Adolf Hitler's hand-picked successor Hermann Goering and Nazi Party leader Rudolf Hess—were brought to trial. The trials went on for nearly a year, and the verdicts were read on October 1, 1946. All but three of the defendants were found guilty, and twelve of them were given death sentences. Goering committed suicide in his cell rather than face the indignity of a public execution. One of the defendants, Martin Bormann, who had been tried in absentia, was later found to have died in the final days of the war. The other ten were hanged. The seven given prison sentences were sent to Berlin's Spandau Prison. After the high-profile trials were concluded, more than one hundred lesser-known defendants were tried in subsequent proceedings using the same rules, with the Nuremberg Trials ending in 1949. Though most agreed with the punishments doled out, some, such as Chief Justice of the United States Harlan Stone, regarded the trials as an example of “victors' justice,” in which the leaders of one nation were tried under a form of international law to which that nation had not consented, for actions that were not defined as crimes at the time they were taken.

Along with the Tokyo Tribunal held at about the same time to try Japan's war criminals, the Nuremberg Trials served as models for international war crimes tribunals, though none was held for over forty years after the Nuremberg Trials. In 1993, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia held a series of similar trials to address the war crimes and acts of ethnic cleansing that characterized the Yugoslav Wars. The following year, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda would try many of the leaders of the country's Hutu population for acts of ethnic cleansing against that country's Tutsi people. The need for an ongoing body that stood ready to deal with crimes against humanity led to the Rome Statute of 1998, which established the International Criminal Court (ICC), based in The Hague, Netherlands. The ICC came into existence in 2002 and as of 2014 had indicted thirty-six people, including Uganda's Joseph Kony and Libya's Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Ginsburgs, George, and V. N. Kudriavtsev. The Nuremberg Trial and International Law. Dordrecht: Nijhoff, 1990. Print.
  • Hirsch, Francine. “The Soviets at Nuremberg: International Law, Propaganda, and the Making of the Postwar Order.” American Historical Review 113.3 (2008): 701–30. Print.
  • Kelly, Michael J., and Timothy L. H. McCormack. “Contributions of the Nuremberg Trial to the Subsequent Development of International Law.” The Legacy of Nuremberg: Civilising Influence or Institutionalised Vengeance? Ed. David A. Blumenthal and Timothy L. H. McCormack. Dordrecht: Nijhoff, 2007. Print.
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