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We should back Ukraine’s demand for a Nuremburg-style tribunal

Bincheng Mao calls for an international tribunal into Russia's actions in Ukraine.

In the aftermath of World War II, the allies convened the Nuremberg trials to investigate and prosecute twenty-one of the most senior Nazi leaders. In its verdict released in 1946, one sentence encapsulated the special court’s unanimous view: launching a war of aggression is the “supreme international crime” as it “contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.”

Last month at the UN General Assembly, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky publicly called for a special international tribunal to try Russian officials responsible for crimes throughout the Russian invasion. In his speech, Zelensky echoed the notion of a supreme international crime set out in the Nuremberg verdict. He stated first that Russia committed crimes against Ukraine’s “state borders” and then described all the other atrocities recorded so far.

It is worth pondering that the crime of aggression was actually conceived by a Russian jurist. Aron Trainin, a graduate of Moscow State University, was the first in the world to propose the criminalization of aggression in the wake of Nazi Germany’s full-scale invasion of the USSR. The stark contrast between Trainin’s groundbreaking suggestion during World War II and Putin’s callous invasion of Ukraine today is ironic and tragic. 

Britain, along with the collective West, has a moral duty to support Ukrainian President Zelensky’s request for a special tribunal. It stems from our conviction that the rule of law is the cornerstone of liberty both domestically and internationally. So far, however, major powers such as Britain and America have yet to declare support for the idea of a criminal tribunal for aggression in Ukraine. 

Applying the Nuremberg model is both a moral and practical way to hold senior Russian officials accountable for committing the crime of aggression. As it stands today, there is unfortunately no existing permanent international court that can prosecute Russian leaders for this crime. Russia initially signed the Rome Statue, which set up the International Criminal Court in The Hague, but later withdrew its signature. The ICC cannot prosecute nationals of a country that is not a party to the Rome Treaty. 

These barriers can be only removed through a special trial: one that is able to investigate evidence of Russian high-ranking officials’ responsibility in this war of aggression, delegitimize Vladimir Putin as a world leader, and provide a lesson in history to all would-be aggressors.

The responsibility falls on Britain’s shoulders because the UK is one of the few countries that can secure enough political backing for President Zelensky’s request. From Nuremberg to Tokyo, we know that tribunals can be created when there is political will, and their creations do not have to go through the UN Security Council where Russia has a veto. And even within the UN system, we have the precedent of the Khmer Rouge Tribunal, one that was established with an agreement between the UN chief executive and Cambodia endorsed by the UN General Assembly, where no country has veto powers. 

Britain should rally support from allies and partners, including India and many Commonwealth countries in Africa that have remained nominally neutral on the war in Ukraine, to push for a resolution in the United Nations General Assembly. It can authorize the UN Secretary-General to make an agreement with Ukraine to set up a tribunal, just like the Khmer Rouge Tribunal. With a simple majority of UN member states, we can ensure that prosecuting senior Russian officials for their crimes of aggression will be a reality. 

In the eyes of many in the world, putting Putin on trial seems a distant hope. And it may be so. But when Charles de Gaulle fled to England in World War II, it would have also seemed impossible to most that German generals such as Wilhelm Keitel and Alfred Jodl would face trials merely five years later at Nuremberg. Setting up a special criminal tribunal is a practical blueprint for prosecuting Putin and his associates for their crimes.
As Ukraine made stunning advances in the east, Putin escalated the war with a partial mobilization in Russia and constant missile attacks on Ukrainian energy facilities. It is clear that he and his associates care more about colonial conquest than any legal considerations. But that does not mean that we should sit idly by. We can show the world that justice still matters by advancing the creation of a special international tribunal to hold those who have committed crimes in Ukraine to account.

Image:CC 1.0//Via Flickr.

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