Benjamin Ferencz and the Pursuit Of International Justice: “A true patriot will support his country when it is right but will have the courage to speak out when it’s wrong and try to set it right.”

Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

Last night I watched the biographical documentary of Benjamin Ferencz, who at the age of 27 served as the chief prosecutor at the Nuremberg Einsatzgruppen Trials In 1947, on Netflix. The title is Prosecuting Evil: the Extraordinary World Of Ben Ferencz. It is well worth the time to watch. Ferencz is now 98 years old and has been a driving force in the prosecution of war crimes. Probably more than any other American took to heart the message of Justice Robert Jackson:

If certain acts of violation of treaties are crimes, they are crimes whether the United States does them or whether Germany does them, and we are not prepared to lay down a rule of criminal conduct against others which we would not be willing to have invoked against us.”

Ferencz, took, and still takes that seriously. He fought long and hard for the establishment of the International Criminal Court and delivered the closing argument in its first prosecution of a war criminal, Thomas Lubanga Dyilo, for his use of child soldiers in the Democratic Republic Of the Congo, the Trial ended in 2006, with Dyilo’s conviction.

Ferencz was brought into the Nuremberg process because of his experience investigating Concentration Camps during and shortly after the war while still in the Army, by Colonel, Later General Telford Taylor, who was appointed to direct the 12 trials that followed the trial of the Major War Criminals. Ferencz discovered the evidence of the crimes of the Einsatzgruppen while doing investigations for Taylor, and he volunteered to take the lead in prosecuting the highest ranking of those killers. Taylor said:

“The laws of war do not apply only to the suspected criminals of vanquished nations. There is no moral or legal basis for immunizing victorious nations from scrutiny. The laws of war are not a one-way street.

Ferencz understood that, and ever since Nuremberg has been a consistent force in the conscience of the nation and international law. I had read about him many times, as well as the Einsatzgruppen Trials. As I watched the documentary about him, which included many interviews with him, I was amazed by how much he was like my history professor at California State University, Northridge, Dr. Helmut Haeussler in the pursuit of truth and justice, who served as an interpreter at Nuremberg and introduced me to victims of the Holocaust, people who survived Auschwitz.

Since that time, as a historian I have been devoted to telling the truth about the Holocaust and bearing witness, even as I confront Holocaust deniers, anti-semites, and Neo-Nazis.

Ferencz made history, and by his continued witness, and at the age of 98 still makes history and inspires men like me to want to make a difference after I retire from the Navy by bearing witness when all of the survivors are gone. Benjamin Ferencz never retired in his quest for justice. He noted:

“Nuremberg taught me that creating a world of tolerance and compassion would be a long and arduous task. And I also learned that if we did not devote ourselves to developing effective world law, the same cruel mentality that made the Holocaust possible might one day destroy the entire human race.”

I agree with him and no matter how long I live I will travel, research, write, and testify on behalf of the victims of the Holocaust and other genocides so that they won’t happen again.

Ferencz spoke out against the Invasion of Iraq in 2003, about American War Crimes in Vietnam, and in what we call The War on Terror. To be sure he labels those who attacked us in 2001 as War Criminals based on the Nuremberg statutes, but he has also been critical of the United States.

Ferencz said: “A true patriot will support his country when it is right but will have the courage to speak out when it’s wrong and try to set it right.”

I want to devote the remaining part of my life to making sure that the truth is told and such events of mass murder never happen again. I will do my best to live according to his ethos, as well as that of Robert Jackson,

Until tomorrow,


Padre Steve+


Filed under ethics, History, holocaust, laws and legislation, Military, national security, nazi germany, war crimes, War on Terrorism

3 responses to “Benjamin Ferencz and the Pursuit Of International Justice: “A true patriot will support his country when it is right but will have the courage to speak out when it’s wrong and try to set it right.”

  1. Steven

    Hey Padre,
    Well, we **may** have hit one of those places where we see things differently.

    The problem with the idea of military War Crimes is the central idea that War is somehow governable by rules that depart from the very basic rules of human conduct. I do not believe that it is. What is a crime to one, sitting in the wealthiest, most affluent, and most powerful nation on earth, is survival to another.

    Why is it “criminal” to kill civilians sometimes—when it’s done with strategic bombers, say—but not others?

    Let’s say, for purposes of discussion, that one day in 1975 I shot a Political Commissar in a village in Zambia. Let us say that the man was not a technical combatant—he was not a terr, nor was he armed or in uniform when I took the shot. I had been ordered to kill him, and I did. Technically, that situation posits a war crime—it would have taken place before America adopted the term “targeted killing”. Would it have been better to shell the whole village, or call in an airstrike? Is elimination of the enemy’s command and control not a valid military goal? The man we’re positing was a Political Commissar of the communist insurgency (for the sake of argument, let us say he was a Soviet-trained Commissar of ZANLA).

    I understand that there is conduct that is beyond the pale—the systematic destruction of people based on no military necessity is a good example, one that lines up well with Mr. Justice Jackson’s beliefs. But beyond genocidal pogroms or internal political oppression—-which is really no foreign nation’s business—war is pretty much a no-holds-barred affair.

    But there is also an awful lot of ground that **seems** real clear in Brussels, but isn’t so clear when it’s your village, town, or nation. Americans have no concept of enduring war. So they often get up on their back legs and preach about the rules of war. But they no more practice them when push comes to shove than, say, a Rhodesian SAS Trooper would have in 1975. But why **would** it be better to stage an invasion of the Japanese mainland than to drop the Atomic Bombs?

    It requires strong leadership to ensure that soldiers understand the line between acceptable law-breaking and unacceptable law-breaking; why it is OK to kill people, but not OK to rape them. Why you can strip a dead guy’s body, but not live PW. And if you cannot teach field-grade leaders to hold their soldiers in line—discipline is way more than not saluting, shined shoes, or kissing a General Officer’s ass–you are going to have problems that are militarily indefensible, and which give aid to the enemy.

    How do you see this issue, in more focus than just what Mr. Justice Jackson said? What is the line between military necessity and military war crimes? Death Squads is pretty clear. Child Soldiers, not so clear. Oh, I know, Americans want to believe that 18 is a Magic Number when everything changes—but surely you know better? How does one nation arbitrate for another the lengths it may go to for survival?

    Again, I am addressing military war crimes, not Big Tent issues like rounding up all the Christians because the State dislikes them.

    Thanks Padre. Try not to yell at me.

    • padresteve

      We have to disagree on this. The challenge of “cultural imperialism” was used during the Nuremberg Trials. International Law continues to evolve and the ICC, whose founding members include many of those third world countries which are culturally different than the West. However, with the exception of some Islamic Countries, North Korea, and Communist China, most nations legal traditions include much from the British, French, Italian, Belgian, Dutch, and German legal systems. After the Second World War many nations adopted the principles of U.S. Law.

      So to say that what we call a war crime is not recognized by most other countries, even those culturally different is a fallacy. In fact it was African Countries on the ICC who defined the use of children as forced soldiers as a war crime.

      Law has to eventually trump the use of force or we will see more genocide, more war crimes, and if the United States, which abandoned the ICC after George W. Bush said we would not abide by it, though we were a signatory. The actions of his administration in going to war against Iraq in 2003, a war that I served in, met three of the four the criteria criteria established at Nuremberg to classify it is an unjust, and illegal war.

      We have always prided ourselves into believing that we did not need international oversight because we supposedly police our own, but history since Vietnam shows that we don’t, and our current President is in the process of pardoning or interfering in the trials of men that the American military has either convicted or is in the process of prosecuting.

      Men like Jackson, Telford-Taylor, and Ferencz were not wrong. This is a vital necessity today. We cannot survive principles of moral equivalence, we are supporting a the criminal war of Saudi Arabia in Yemen right now. We are violating the very principles of law that we sent people to their deaths.

      But you have to know where I am coming from on this.



  2. Steven


    Yes, I do. And I think it’s fair to say that our disagreement is not complete. However, do not confuse my argument with the cultural differences mis-direction. That was not what I meant.

    What I meant is that war brings out the very best of us, and the very worst of us. What a woman or man won’t do to defend their home and way of life gets much narrower the closer the threat draws. That is my meaning. You can call it the pragmatism argument, if you like.

    And then there is the argument you yourself made—that adherence is convenience, and as I stated, relative to power. No one is EVER going to bring GW Bush—or more properly, Dick Cheney—into a court of law for War Crimes. Because no one has the political will or military power to do so. Dick Cheney sanctioned the use of torture—using legalistic phraseology—and there are plenty of Americans who supported him, and the war.

    I don’t hold an especially rosy view of America—I believe it to be a liberal democracy as fallible as any of the other Western liberal democracies.

    But abuse of legalisms cuts both ways—though I do not mean this as an argument against International Law; we determined to avenge ourselves against the Japanese after WWII, and we did. Among the crimes they were charged with was abuse of PWs. The standards applied were those of the Geneva Convention, to which Japan was not a signatory. what kind of law is it that charges you for breaking a treaty you did not sign, by a clever legal manoeuver?

    You tend to see International Law as a purely good force. As the citizen of a massively wealthy and powerful state, that’s a hubris you have the luxury to enjoy. I see it as more complicated. I see how states like the USA use it to enforce and extend their national policies—for good or ill, that’s not the purpose of International Law—and to hold themselves immune from it.

    What’s the difference between shooting a Political Officer in the head and hitting his car with a Hellfire missile from a drone?

    I expect you’re a fan of the terrorist Nelson Mandela. So you’ll know that when I quote him, I’m not being selective: “One man’s Terrorist is another man’s Freedom Fighter”.

    That, pretty much, sums up the view of International Law from the “not rich, not Super-Power”, State’s viewpoint.

    Again, I end up appearing more opposed to International Law than I am; I just believe it needs a healthy dose of skepticism—like most things involving politics. And I think if it’s going to work, it has to work for everybody, and that will require the end of unilateral or bilateral Superpower politics.

    And I guess I’m less hopeful than you. I don’t see the history of humans as giving us hope that war can be ended, full stop, or that genocidal pogroms can be wholly averted. After all, the time to stop the things is not when the pogrom is announced, but when the popular leader takes power away from the process that they used to get elected—Putin, Erdogan, Mugabe, etc…

    The only man who ever willingly surrendered unfettered power was George Washington. It took over two centuries to do it, but his legacy seem finally to have fallen away.

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