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  • Cited by 1
  • Print publication year: 2012
  • Online publication date: December 2012

6 - Atrocity, law, humanity: punishing human rights violators

from Part II - Interconnections


François de Menthon, one of the French Prosecutors at the Nuremberg war crimes trial in 1945, was assigned the task of defining humanity. The context was a trial in which a more or less new legal category – crimes against humanity – had to be created to encompass the system of abuse and murder instituted by the Nazis in the mid 1930s. This development had a spatial imperative (Nazi crimes committed against Germans in Germany fell outside the category of ‘war crimes’, a category encompassing only acts committed against foreign soldiers or civilians), a temporal imperative (war crimes applied only to acts committed during war and excluded peace-time offences) and a moral imperative (it was believed that an unprecedented level of baseness had been reached and that the response to it required a new language and new law).

In its delineation of crimes against humanity, de Menthon’s opening address to the International Military Tribunal invoked three distinguishable concepts. The first was the idea that certain acts were crimes against human beings regardless of the race, religion, national affiliation or ethnicity of the victims. This was international criminal law in its universalising mode, and it was an inspiration for two 1948 landmarks: The Genocide Convention (in the field of criminal law) and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) (in the field of human rights law).

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