David Luban

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No record exists of how the term "crimes against humanity" came to be chosen by the framers of the Nuremberg Charter. The term was selected by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, the chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg and the head of the American delegation to the London Conference that framed the Charter. Jackson consulted with the great international law scholar Hersch Lauterpacht, but they decided to leave their deliberations unrecorded, apparently to avoid courting controversy. In 1915, the French, British, and Russian governments had denounced Turkey's Armenian genocide as "crimes against civilization and humanity," and the same phrase appeared in a 1919 proposal to conduct trials of the Turkish perpetrators. But the United States objected at that time that the so-called "laws of humanity" had no specific content, and the proposal to try the Turks was scuttled. Apparently, Jackson saw no reason to invoke a precedent to which his own government had earlier objected on rule of law grounds and concluded that the less said, the better. Cherif Bassiouni, who chronicles these events, nevertheless finds the crimes-against-humanity terminology "most appropriate," and, aside from worries to be considered below that the term runs the danger of demonizing those who commit such crimes, it is hard to disagree. The phrase "crimes against humanity" has acquired enormous resonance in the legal and moral imaginations of the post-World War II world. It suggests, in at least two distinct ways, the enormity of these offenses. First, the phrase "crimes against humanity" suggests offenses that aggrieve not only the victims and their own communities, but all human beings, regardless of their community. Second, the phrase suggests that these offenses cut deep, violating the core humanity that we all share and that distinguishes us from other natural beings.

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