An important marker of civilization has always been the ascendancy of law over the unbridled use of force. At the outset of the 21st century, we are faced with a pervasive dilemma. Reliance on force given the power of our destructive technologies could destroy civilization as we know it.
The trials at Nuremberg and Tokyo following World War II were an attempt to elevate the force of law over the law of force. The newly created International Criminal Court, which will bring the Principles of Nuremberg into the 21st century, is supported by all major US allies. Unfortunately US leaders are opposing the Court and seem to fear being held to the same level of accountability as they would demand for other leaders.
Of course, law does not prevent all crime. It simply sets normative standards and provides that those who violate these standards will be punished. In the case of the most heinous crimes, the remedies of law are inadequate. But even inadequate remedies of law are superior to the unbridled use of force that compounds the injury by inflicting death and suffering against other innocent people. Perpetrators of crime must be brought before the bar of justice, but there must also be safeguards that protect the innocent from being made victims of generalized retribution.
When an individual commits a crime, there should be clear liability. When a state commits a crime, however, who is to be held to account? According to the Principles of Nuremberg that were applied to the Axis leaders after World War II, it should be the responsible parties, whether or not they were acting in the service of the state. At Nuremberg, it was determined that sovereignty has its limits, and that leaders of states who committed serious crimes under international law would be held to account before the law. These crimes included crimes against peace, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Without the international norms that are established by law, the danger exists of reverting to international anarchy, in which each country seeks its own justice by its own means. Only established legal norms, upheld by the international community and supported by the most powerful nations, can prevent such chaos and the ultimate resort to war to settle disputes. International legal norms are essential in a world in which violence can have even more fearful results than were first experienced at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
International law is needed if we are to abolish war before war abolishes us. We cannot have it both ways. If we choose law, the nations of the world must join together in a common effort to support and enforce the law. Albert Einstein, the great 20th century scientist and humanitarian, wrote, “Anybody who really wants to abolish war must resolutely declare himself in favor of his own country’s resigning a portion of its sovereignty in favor of international institutions: he must be ready to make his own country amenable, in case of a dispute, to the award of an international court. He must in the most uncompromising fashion support disarmament all around….”
In recent years, the United States has pulled away from international law by disavowing treaties, particularly in the area of disarmament, and by withdrawing its support from the International Criminal Court. Without US leadership in support of international law, force rather than law will gain strength as the international norm. Relying on force may be tempting to the most powerful country on the planet, but it portends disaster, not least for the United States itself.
*David Krieger is president of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation.