United Nations War Crimes Commission Records : Past, Present and Future


In observance of the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War and the founding of the United Nations, the Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme of the Department of Public Information organized a panel discussion titled “United Nations War Crimes Commission Records: Past, Present and Future”, moderated by Ms. Edith Lederer, Chief correspondent for the Associated Press at the United Nations, on Tuesday, 11 November 2014 at United Nations Headquarters in New York. Opening the panel discussion, Ms. Hua Jiang, Officer-in-Charge of the United Nations Department of Public Information, underscored the historical significance and potential use of the records of the Commission

Speakers included H.E. Mr. Asoke Kumar Mukerji, Permanent Representative of India to the United Nations; Mr. Adama Dieng, Special Adviser to the Secretary-General on the Prevention of Genocide; Ms. Bridget Sisk, Chief of the United Nations Archives and Records Management Section; Mr. Patrick J. Treanor, former member of the Office of Special Investigations of the United States Department of Justice; Dr. Dan Plesch, Director of the Centre for Diplomatic Studies and Diplomacy of the University of London; and Mr. Henry Mayer, Senior Adviser on Archives of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Noting its “unique endeavour”, Ambassador Asoke Kumar Mukerji provided the participants with an overview of the establishment of the United Nations War Crimes Commission and its Far Eastern and Pacific Sub-Commission. In the light of the principles of the 1942 Declaration of the United Nations, the Commission was created on 20 October 1943 by 17 Allied nations to collect, investigate and record evidence of war crimes, and to report cases to the government concerned. Faced by challenges, including gathering detailed information on war criminals as war crimes were occurring and the lack of a legal basis for the punishment and extradition of war criminals, the Commission continued its work until the end of March 1948. Before shutting down, the Commission published “Information concerning Human Rights Arising from Trials of War Criminals” (E/CN.4/W.19).

In 1949, the custody of the records of the United Nations War Crimes Commission was given to the United Nations Secretariat. Bridget Sisk explained that those records consist of minutes, documents and reports of the Commission and its Committees, the Research Office, and the Far Eastern and Pacific Sub-Commission, periodical lists of War Criminals, Suspects, Witnesses (including approximately 37,000 names) and related material of the main Commission and of the Far Eastern and Pacific Sub-Commission, and correspondence mainly with various national offices. In 1986, allegations of war crimes were made against Kurt Waldheim, former United Nations Secretary-General, based on his service as a Wehrmacht officer in Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia during the Second World War. The rules regarding access to the records – which contained evidence of suspected crimes that may not have led to conviction at trial – were  seriously challenged The Commission had required permission from the Secretary-General and the Member State concerned in order to gain access through the United Nations.  Subsequently, the United Nations Secretariat conducted a review of the access rules applied to these archives.

Following this review, the 1987 Revised Rules for Access to records of the United Nations War Crimes Commission continued to restrict access at the United Nations Headquarters “to any person engaged in serious research in the history of the Commission or in related problems in international law or associated fields”. However, a copy of the records had been provided to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which  made the records public in July 2014. Henry Mayer announced that “anyone, with a valid ID card could now access the records at the Museum library” in Washington, D.C.. He explained the role of the Museum in rescuing the evidence of the Holocaust and ensuring it is preserved and made available to the public. The work of the Commission also helps to bring closure to the families of the victims and provides insights into the accountability mechanisms used to bring war criminals to justice in the aftermath of the Second World War.  

Adama Dieng further explained the important process of accountability and “how essential it is to ensure not only that the past is remembered but also that we learn from it” in order to prevent genocide and other atrocity crimes He recalled the importance of gathering and keeping records and bringing perpetrators of war crimes to justice. Furthermore, Patrick Treanor, explained how he used the records of the Commission, in the 1980s, to investigate Nazi war criminals, including Kurt Waldheim, who was at that time the President of Austria.

Panellists also paid tribute to the influence of the Commission on the development of international law and international criminal law. Adama Dieng said the Commission was “international criminal law in the making”. He noted that the Commission set a precedent of central authority to investigate war crimes and paved the way for the principle of complementarity, one of the key principles of the International Criminal Court. Dan Plesch credited the Commission with important contributions to the development of core areas of criminal justice and human rights, including the prosecution of sexual and gender-based crimes, such as rape, as a war crime. He added that low-level criminals, as well as top-leaders, were convicted for their own crimes and for being in command of the troops that committed them. In addition, convictions were handed down for the war crimes of rape and forced prostitution.

During the Q&A session, the panellists all agreed that the world would have benefitted much more from an earlier analysis of the records of the work of the Commission, especially in dealing with war crimes in the 1990’s and today. It was about time we acknowledge the legacy of the Commission and its records in dealing with war crimes, Adama Dieng said in closing.