20 November 2020   Leave a comment

Today marks the 75th anniversary of the beginning of the Nuremberg Trials which prosecuted Nazi officials of crimes against humanity and other war crimes. It is difficult to overestimate the significance of the trials for world politics. They dismissed the pretense that the behavior of states in their internal affairs were not a concern for international politics, a pretense that was established at the end of the Thirty Years War and the Peace of Westphalia that ended the war. As with all wars, the causes were complex, but one of the main issues had to do with how Catholics and Protestants were treated in regions ruled by leaders with opposing faiths. The bloodshed of the war was extraordinary largely because there were no points of compromise. Protestants rulers wanted to protect Protestants who lived in Catholic-ruled regions and vice-versa. In order to end the war, the combatants decided to adopt a rule: “Cuius regio, eius religio” which roughly translates as “whose realm, his religion”. The formulation led to the creation of what we now call nation-states and the doctrine of sovereignty which holds that the internal affairs of a state are not subjects of international scrutiny. That position is still strongly held by many states in the world, most notably China which is concerned about international scrutiny of its conduct in Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan.

That position, however, was not tenable in the aftermath of the conduct of states during World War II, especially in the wake of the Holocaust, the Holodomor in Ukraine, and Japanese atrocities in Nanjing, China. The Nuremberg Trials (and the Tokyo Trials) were the first attempts to alter the doctrine of sovereignty so that future atrocities could be potentially deterred. The effort has not been completely successful, as the atrocities in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Bosnia, have shown. But the efforts to prevent such atrocities continues and those efforts have been bolstered by the emergence of a new doctrine in world politics: the responsibility to protect. The doctrine assets that sovereignty is not simply a right that shields states from criticism; it also implies a powerful obligation by states to protect the human rights of all who live within the territorial borders that define the parameters of sovereignty. The doctrine has yet to be proven effective, as witnessed by the current atrocities in Yemen and Myanmar. But it is an aspiration that deserves to be pursued by all who care about world peace and justice.

One of those individuals fighting to protect the lives of vulnerable people is a Mount Holyoke alumna, Marjory Wentworth. Marjory was a student in the very first class I taught at Mount Holyoke College in the fall of 1976. She went on to found a chapter of Amnesty International at the College and co-authored a book with Juan E. Méndez, the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment, entitled Taking A Stand: The Evolution of Human Rights (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2011). Her commitment to human rights is extraordinary and her words have given encouragement to countless numbers of peoples oppressed by states.

In 2016, Marjory wrote a beautiful poem celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials. She dedicated the poem to Henry Barbanel, a holocaust survivor: “Polish-born Barbanel was forced to go to a labor camp near Lublin and Wladowa to work for the Germans when he was 14, but quickly escaped and went on to help form a resistance movement based out of the woods of Marjanka, Poland, which was near the concentration camp in Sobibor”. Barbanel was interviewed for the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Marjory deserves recognition as one of the most powerful voices in the United States for human rights.

In the Shadows of Nuremberg

Marjory Wentworth

For Henry Barbanel

Because we are forever weak
and wounded, looking for someone
to follow or blame, sometimes
we become savage and change
the rules to ease our minds.
Clouded by delusions
of power or fame, human
beings can justify anything.

Too often things can go wrong
in a hurry, and the masses
go along as if their hearts
were turned inside out, and hatred
was something long hidden
but there, like a riptide
pulling below the glittering
smooth surface of the sea.

Abandoning everything
we know is right, we become
tribal and primitive,
tearing the ties that bind us
one to another, as if
they were made of air. And love
dissolves into something
lost in the cruel cacophony.

And though it may be far,
there is always a storm
swirling somewhere. The sea
that connects and creates us,
holds the seeds of our destruction.
Still, God keeps nothing from us.
Each new wave is a renewal;
every day a gift of our own making.

As we stumble from the shadows
of the twentieth century,
covered in blood and ash,
cradling the bones of those who are lost,
we know there can be justice;
the pattern has been set.
No matter how long it takes,
there is no peace without redemption.
Without shadows, there is no light.

Posted November 20, 2020 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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