“Hidden Figures” – A Workshop on the History of the United Nations War Crimes Commission

UNWCC Conference, London, 11 June 1945 (c) National WWII Museum

The United Nations War Crimes Commission (UNWCC) is receiving more and more scholarly attention. Established in 1943 by the Allied states in London, it prepared for the trial of war crimes committed by Axis nationals. All governments-in-exile participated in the deliberations which focused predominantly on three aspects: 1) on legal doctrines – for example, the criminalisation of wars of aggression and of individual criminal acts committed on superior order , 2) on the adjudication through an international court and 3) the international administration of justice, which concerned extradition and transnational prosecutorial authorities. 

Émigré lawyers were key to these debates. They were not necessarily long-standing experts in international criminal law; many of them had little to no prior practical experience with adjudicating war crimes. But in a process of transnational exchange, they gathered expertise and developed a common identity. Some of them became outspoken proponents of internationalising humanitarian law and introduced new concepts – most famously “crimes against humanity” – to judge crimes committed before and during the Second World War.

These processes were at the centre of a workshop at the state archives in Ludwigsburg on 20 and 21 February 2020, organised by Sabina Ferhadbegovic (Jena), Kerstin von Lingen (Vienna) and Julia Eichenberg (Berlin). By focussing on the “hidden figures” at the centre of the UNWCC, it provided a platform to discuss the history of international criminal law and the impact that individuals have on legal history more generally. A private tour through the Central Office of the Land Judicial Authorities for Investigation of National Socialist Crimes and a keynote speech by Joe Powderly (Leiden) on the destruction – and protection – of cultural heritage and international law set the stage for a very productive exchange of research projects linked to members of the UNWCC. 

Together, the papers painted a vivid picture of the diverse biographies of Australian, Belgian, Czech, Dutch, French, Polish, Soviet and Yugoslav lawyers in the UNWCC and their respective intellectual framework and legal style of thought. While some participants focused on key individuals who made their mark on the codification of international criminal law in London, others discussed the contribution of the representatives of a specific country to the work of the UNWCC and the impact of the UNWCC on local jurisdiction, respectively. The common denominator was an interest in the possibilities and resources émigré lawyers had to impact how war crimes should be adjudicated. The distinctive political and social layout of the London Moment offered new opportunities, and obstacles, to those who wanted to reform international criminal law. A view from the “margins” on jurists from smaller, less influential states provided new pieces of the puzzle that is the wide-ranging and complex work of the UNWCC.

For the programme, click here.

Cite this blog post
Sara Weydner (2020, March 23). “Hidden Figures” – A Workshop on the History of the United Nations War Crimes Commission. The London Moment. Retrieved April 19, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/onme

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