Commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the Nuremberg Trials
Remarks as prepared for delivery
Good evening, everyone, and thank you for that warm welcome. Thank you, Mayor [Ulrich] Maly for your hospitality in welcoming me to this beautiful and historic city. Thank you, Chief Prosecutor [Fatou] Bensouda for your inspiring words and for your dedication to the cause of international law and justice. I also want to thank the Robert H. Jackson Center for hosting this annual dialogue and for inviting me to speak to you this evening. And I want to thank this outstanding group of lawyers, public servants, advocates and educators for being here this evening. I am especially pleased that so many law students are here tonight, including delegations from some of America’s finest law schools. We are here to celebrate the cause of justice – a cause that will soon be yours to carry on. I hope that your visit to Nuremberg will inspire you for years to come.
It is an honor to address this distinguished body. And it is especially meaningful to stand here in Courtroom 600 as Attorney General of the United States. Many men and women associated with the department that I am proud to lead – the Department of Justice – participated in the Nuremberg Trials. The most famous of them, of course, was one of my predecessors as Attorney General: Robert H. Jackson, the chief American prosecutor and one of the trial’s architects. Jackson’s deputy was Thomas Dodd, a Justice Department prosecutor who later became a prominent U.S. Senator. Another former Attorney General, Francis Biddle, was America’s representative on the judges’ panel. And there were many others here who were less well known – people like Assistant Counsel Sadie Arbuthnot, a Justice Department secretary who went to law school at night, and Cecelia Goetz, the first female attorney to be offered a supervisory role at the department – an offer she turned down in order to come to Nuremberg. Today, the Department of Justice carries on their legacy through our Office of Human Rights and Special Prosecutions, which is responsible for bringing to justice those responsible for genocide, torture, war crimes, and other extraordinary violations of human rights.
Not all who served here were famous. But all who served here made a difference – not just in their own time, but for all time. Simply by holding judicial proceedings, they made clear that war crimes and crimes against humanity are not beyond the reach of justice; rather, they are crimes that each of us has a responsibility to address. By seeking the justice of the liberator rather than the vengeance of the conqueror, they demonstrated that war does not have to be the final arbiter of human affairs. And by extending the rights of due process to those responsible for the most barbaric crime in history, they gave powerful witness to the principle of equal justice.
These were important precedents, ones that have shaped our world ever since. Nuremberg helped lay the foundation for the international tribunals that have followed – including the Tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and the International Criminal Court. It also helped to inspire the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and an expanded view of human rights generally. And the legacy of Nuremberg certainly has shaped my life and career as well. I was proud to serve as special counsel to the prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda – a formative experience that brought me face to face with the devastation that ensues when the rule of law collapses and justice is nowhere to be found.
That devastation is all too real, and – despite the progress we have made – it is still all too present in our world. Nuremberg did not put an end to atrocities; none of its architects were so naïve as to think it would. Indeed, the cry of “Never again” has echoed far too often in the face of new atrocities.
Certainly the onslaught of evidence of man’s inhumanity to man can leave one dispirited and discouraged. But we cannot – and we should not – give in to despair, because the legacy of Nuremberg is that when we are called to confront the evil that walks this earth, we turn to the law. When we need to mete out justice to those who have reaped the whirlwind and revel in the chaos resulting therefrom, we turn to the law. And through the law we give voice to those shattered souls who seek redress, and we provide a reckoning to those who trade in fear and trembling. Let us never forget that within these walls, evil was held to account and humanity prevailed.
And because of Nuremberg, never again can future generations turn a blind eye to the atrocities committed against their fellow human beings. Never again need future generations respond to war crimes or crimes against humanity with abject resignation. Because the lesson and legacy of Nuremberg is that if humankind is determined enough and united enough, no crime – no matter how far beyond the pale – is beyond the reach of justice.
These are the lessons of Nuremberg – and so today, as we gather in this hallowed space, let us pause to learn them once again. Let us leave here renewed in our devotion to justice – not just for the people of our own countries, but for the people of all countries. Let us leave here refreshed in our determination to defend human rights, to protect human liberty, and to uphold human dignity wherever and whenever it is threatened. And let us leave here with a new resolve to build a world worthy of those who served in Courtroom 600, as well as the victims they represented – a world where every life is accorded equal value, where no one lives in the shadow of arbitrary power, and where all enjoy the shelter of impartial law.
That is the vision that has brought us here tonight – and it is the mission that binds us together. So let me thank all of you – both the lawyers who do this work today, and the students who will carry on this work tomorrow – for your commitment to that vision, and your contributions to that mission. Thank you.