Lubomyr Luciuk
Lubomyr Luciuk

Putin and the Nuremberg principles

A set of guidelines, known as the Nuremberg Principles, were created by the UN’s International Law Commission at the end of the Second World War. They were first utilized during the Major War Criminals Trials that began 20 November 1945 and ended 1 October 1946. Of the 24 Nazis indicted, 12 were sentenced to death by hanging, one in absentia, and the rest given prison sentences ranging from 10 years to life behind bars. Ten went to the noose on 16 October 1946. Remarkably, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring managed to cheat the hangman by taking a cyanide pill, the night before.

In May 1988, in Brussels, I had the privilege of spending time in the company of the late Professor Colonel Gerald Draper, where I appeared as a witness before the International Commission of Inquiry into the 1932-1933 Famine. Later I was a guest at his home in England. One of the first Allied officers to arrive at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Colonel Draper later served as a prosecutor at Nuremberg and then at other war crimes trials from 1945-1949. Among other trying tasks he interrogated SS-Obersturmbannführer  Rudolf Höss, the Commandant of Auschwitz. Höss was later hanged, at Auschwitz, 16 April 1947. The gallows beam used for the purpose was still there when I ventured to set foot in this corner of hell on earth.

I remember Gerald Draper as a knightly man of faith, remarkably insightful, as someone who, as Professor Michael Bothe pointed out in reviewing the now-hard-to-find book, The Selected Works on the Laws of War by the late Professor Colonel G.I.A.D. Draper, OBE : “was a realist who knew that it was not enough to make good laws: they had to be implemented.” I cannot pretend to know what Professor Draper might think about the behaviour of Vladimir Putin, the president-in-perpetuity of the so-called Russian ‘Federation,’ but he would, I feel sure, still endorse the Nuremberg Principles he played no small role in shaping.

Crimes punished under international law include Crimes Against Peace, namely:

(i) Planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances;

(ii) Participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the acts mentioned under (i).

No serious student of international relations disputes that, in February 2014, the Russian military invaded and illegally annexed Ukraine’s Crimea, subsequently staging a Nazi-like ‘referendum’ in this occupied territory. Aside from a few pariah states (e.g. North Korea, Syria, Cuba, Venezuela) the international community does not recognize Russia’s occupation of Ukraine’s Crimea, whose indigenous Tatar population have been subjected to widespread human rights abuses. In March 2014 Russian troops and local enablers invested eastern Ukraine, starting a war of aggression that continues to this day, with thousands killed. On 17 July 2014 the Russians even shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight MH 17, murdering 298, mostly Dutch, civilians. But a Canadian, Andrei Anghel, was also on board, flying to Bali for a vacation with his German girlfriend, Olga Ioppa: two promising students of medicine whose lives were snuffed out.

Many other lives have been ended at Putin’s command. Writing for The Washington Post , in 2017, David Filipov reported on some of these victims, including Anna Politkovskaya, a journalist with Novaya Gazeta assassinated on 7 October 2006 – apparently her book, Putin’s Russia, exposing how the country was being turned into a police state, was not on the KGB man in the Kremlin’s favourite reading list. And then there was Boris Nemtsov, shot in the back, 4 times, 27 February 2015, while protesting Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine. He was killed within sight of the Kremlin. And yet his killer remains at large, despite Mr Putin’s dubiously sincere claim about assuming ‘personal control’ of the investigation. No wonder US President Joe Biden recently described Putin as a ‘killer.’

Now it’s indisputable Vladimir Putin was president of the Russian Federation in 2014, when the war against Ukraine was launched. His reign won’t end soon. In July 2020, having ruled for more than 20 years, Putin re-arranged Russian affairs to ensure he stays in office until 2036. He’ll be 83 by then. History will remember how he held onto power even longer than Stalin. That tyrant was 74 when, thankfully, he croaked.

However, being president doesn’t protect Putin. A person who committed an act which constitutes a crime under international law, even if they did so as a head of state, is not relieved from responsibility. Since it seems fairly evident that Mr Putin has committed more than one such crime, he should be apprehended whenever he next leaves his imperial domains. Once in custody he certainly must get a fair trial, based on the evidence and law. And he has the right to offer a defence. As one of the richest men in the world (a billionaire, remarkable in and of itself given his modest KGB pension, even topped up by a presidential salary) he can afford the best legal defence team out there. Perhaps he will even call Viktor Yanukovych as a character witness. Moscow’s satrap, this former president of Ukraine was deposed during the 2014 Euromaidan Revolution. He subsequently fled to Russia, taking up Russian citizenship. So he should be available, although Viktor may be reluctant to show himself. He’s also wanted on charges of murder.

Once Mr. Putin has had a fair trial, justice should be done, just as it was with his Nazi predecessors, 75 years ago. Good laws, after all, have to be implemented.

About the Author
Lubomyr was born in Kingston, Ontario, and is the son of Ukrainian political refugees. He was educated at Queen's University, the University of Alberta and, since 1990, and is a professor of political geography at The Royal Military College of Canada.
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