In his new book Human Rights after Hitler, Dan Plesch makes a case for rewriting the history of human rights and international criminal law using the declassified archives of the United Nations War Crimes Commission (UNWCC). In view of 36,000 indictments against Nazi and Japanese war criminals facilitated by the UNWCC, he argues that the Allied nations’ response to the Holocaust was more committed than most accounts – focussing on the International Military Tribunals at Nuremberg and Tokyo – acknowledge. His study thus carries on his own already extensive work on the UNWCC and complements publications on the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials, such as Reassessing the Nuremberg Military Tribunals: Transitional Justice, Trial Narratives, and Historiography by Kim Priemel and Alexa Stiller.
In nine chapters (see http://www.unwcc.org/chapters/ for short summaries), Plesch seeks to fish the UNWCC “out of the Orwellian ‘memory hole’ into which its contemporary detractors cast it”. He outlines its establishment and the commission’s work, underlining that not only the Nazi leadership was brought to justice, but many more who were responsible for the Holocaust in occupied countries. He also highlights that the UNWCC, in responding to Nazi atrocities, was an important forum for innovations in international law with regard to aggressive war, the defense of superior orders, prosecution of sexual violence etc., and that these innovations were the result of the contributions of non-Western intellectuals and officials as well as the exile governments in London. He strongly criticizes scholarship that overlooks the “international, grassroots-driven campaign to formalize and enforce global norms” (p. 193) and that denies the liberal and global origins of human rights in the 1940s (e.g. Samual Moyn).
The UNWCC’s effectiveness, he puts forward, should be proof that war crimes should and can be prosecuted effectively. Plesch is convinced that there are “moral and practical lessons we can learn from the heroes of this unsung political movement for international justice.” (p. 2) He agrees with Carsten Stahn that we are in need of a “UNWCC 2.0” that enables complementary prosecution of war crimes by national courts while applying international criminal legal standards. Instead of betting on “large-scale, expensive, drawn-out trials of leaders conducted by international (overwhelmingly Western) lawyers and officials”, the UNWCC is an example for effective prosecution of war crimes on a national level “through existing judicial systems.” (p. 204)
Plesch justifies his object of study with the usefulness and applicability of UNWCC practices and norms, e.g. for prosecuting Syrian war criminals. This should be kept in mind when reading his book. Understanding the “past as prelude” always risks downplaying developments that do not fit our narrative in favor of a teleological explanation of the historical past. However, this is a well-researched and well-argued book with a strong appeal for more studies on the UNWCC.