UN archive detailing investigation of more than 36,000 criminal cases can assist with present-day justice trials, experts say
The list of internationally approved war crimes indictments drawn up by the commission cover important modern categories of crimes, including aggression, genocide, crimes against humanity, modes of liability – including that of mid-level perpetrators - and international procedures, as well as the development of international criminal justice as a whole.
Had the archive been more widely known, international law enforcers say it would have given them new understandings and legal precedents to use in international criminal justice trials. For example, rape and enforced prostitution were successfully prosecuted as war crimes in UNWCC-supported trials. But those sitting on tribunals set up after the genocides in Rwanda and Yugoslavia believed international law did not recognise those acts as war crimes and so were unable to extensively prosecute perpetrators.
The UNWCC formed and began defining a list of new, internationally agreed war crimes at the Foreign Office on 20 October 1943. After the war, sufficient evidence of those crimes was found against 36,800 people, leading to trials by the US and major European nations, as well as China and India between 1945 and 1948. At least 2,700 accused persons eventually faced trial, receiving sentences ranging from imprisonment to the death penalty.
The commission, however, was hastily wound up in 1948 and quickly forgotten – thanks to the US, which believed the trials were impeding Germany’s rehabilitation. Since then, the UN archives have been accessible only to those who received personal authority from their government and permission from the UN secretary general.
Plesch, alongside Shanti Sattler, initiated the fight for the release of the UN archive in 2007. “There are many hidden histories in international criminal justice,” he said. “But the record and practice of the UNWCC is the best-kept secret in the field. Scholarship and historical writings are typically focused on the legacy of the Nuremberg or the Tokyo trials or contemporary courts and tribunals. But the thousands of cases we can now access can reinforce international political will and practice in facing the crimes now being perpetrated in the Middle East and elsewhere.”
Plesch is seeking funding to make the 900-gigabyte archive available to the public.