Why has the United States of America always refused the definition of "crimes against humanity" suggestion by its fellow Western nations?
Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, Gresham Professor of Law, explains the political and legal history behind the USA and the international laws relating to "crimes against humanity". From Abraham Lincoln in 1860, through the Armenian massacres of 1915, to the aftermath of the Holocaust, Sir Geoffrey puts his finger on the key points of this dark and little-known area of international history.
Abraham Lincoln, in his 1860 Electoral Platform, branded the re-opening of the African slave trade as a "crime against humanity", but it was not until 1915 that this phrase began to have a specific legal meaning.
When Britain, France and Russia made a declaration against the Armenian massacres carried out in Turkey, the USA withheld their involvement. In something of an explanation, the then US Secretary of State, Robert Lansing, referred to what he called the "more or less justifiable" right of the Turkish government to deport the Armenians to the extent that they lived "within the zone of military operations."
The USA's distance from the rest of the Western community on the question of Crimes Against Humanity continued in the aftermath of World War Two and the revelations of the Holocaust. In the London Conference of 1945 that preceded the Nuremberg trials where crimes against humanity was defined, US prosecutor Justice Jackson made it quite clear that it was no part of the USA’s functions to interfere with the internal affairs of another country, even if they were exterminating their citizens.
Jackson explained - candidly - that the definition of "crimes against humanity" should not allow the Allies to try the Nazis for acts not linked to war, because this could also expose the US to the same pursuit for things it had done in the past. Thus pre-war action against the Jews within Nazi Germany would not have been covered by the law.
It was only thanks to the effort of Raphael Lempkin and his pushing on the definition of "genocide" that this was able to be considered at the Nuremberg Trials.
This is an extract from the lecture 'International Criminal Tribunals: Experiments? Works in progress? Institutions that are here for good, or maybe not?' which was given as a part of Sir Geoffrey Nice's series of free public lectures given as Gresham Professor of Law. The full hour-long lecture be accessed on the Gresham College website here:
Gresham College has been giving free public lectures since 1597. This tradition continues today with all of our five or so public lectures a week being made available for free download from our website. There is currently over 1,300 lectures free to access or download from the website.
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