To see how far we have still left to go to achieve true equality — not only in South Africa but anywhere in the world where people are denied human rights and justice — can feel daunting, but we must remember that if we do not remain vigilant, demand accountability and continue to work toward ending human rights violations everywhere, they are likely to be repeated anywhere.
The key to fighting against atrocities fueled by hate lies in the lessons of the Nuremberg trials from 75 years ago.
As a law student in 1963, I was intrigued by the Nuremberg cases I pored over in the library; they gave me a framework for understanding apartheid-era crimes, and how the law could tackle state-sponsored violence and inequality.
I became a lawyer in 1967 when no law firm would employ me as a “colored person.” I defended anti-apartheid activists, exposed the torture of political detainees, and successfully sued to prevent the torture of my own detained husband. I won access to lawyers for political prisoners, including Nelson Mandela. The first judge’s chambers I entered was my own, in 1995, as the first non-White woman to serve on the High Court.
I am proud of my accomplishments, but the struggle to truly end the legacy of apartheid truly is not over; it has deep roots. Thirty years after the signing of the National Peace Accord ushered in the November 1993 ratification of the Interim South African Constitution and the April 1994 election that made Mandela South Africa’s first post-apartheid president, the non-White population remains the poorest and Whites earn about three times the average wage of Blacks and mixed race people.
And like the agreements ending apartheid, the 19 convictions of senior Nazi officials handed down at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal by American, British, French and Soviet judges did not bring a simple end to the Nazi era.
After the Nuremberg convictions came the US Nuremberg Military Tribunal’s cases, which convicted 1,416 individuals, but many of the longer prison sentences were substantially reduced. And in 1951, a controversial amnesty released many still in prison. It took the arrival of two new German generations to face the Nuremberg legacy squarely. Now Germany is an ally in the fight against impunity, something unimaginable 75 years ago.
In addition to the judgment, Nuremberg bequeathed us a succinct set of seven principles, adopted several years later by the United Nations. They specifically set out crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity as punishable under international law, as well as complicity in any of the above.
They encapsulate the idea that any person committing a crime under international law can be held responsible, that crimes can be legal under domestic law and still illegal under international law, and perhaps most importantly, that heads of state and government officials can be held responsible and cannot claim immunity if they were ordered to commit crimes. Finally, they reinforce that any person charged with an international crime has the right to a fair trial.
Now, we are approaching the 20th anniversary of the creation of the International Criminal Court (ICC), of which I was privileged to be elected one of its first judges, and which would not exist without Nuremberg and the principles. Among its supporters, the ICC can count both Germany and South Africa.
While the creation of the ICC itself was a remarkable achievement, and it has accomplished some notable successes, our work is still only beginning. When I look around the world, I see the gap between our aspirations and the experiences of victims worldwide. According to the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, 82.4 million people are forcibly displaced worldwide and 1 in 95 people have fled their homes because of conflict and violence, including 33 million children.
Violence, often state-sponsored, is driving huge instability in Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Libya, Nigeria, the Sahel, Somalia, Syria, Venezuela and Yemen, among other places. We cannot count Nuremberg as a full success until the impunity that reigns in many areas of the world is reined in, and until the Nuremberg principles are a lived reality for all victims.
The path toward implementation of the Nuremberg principles is a symbol of humanity’s aspiration and progress toward justice. We are morally obliged to continue our collective work toward a more just and peaceful future on behalf of next generations. We must move away from a culture of impunity for egregious crimes and gross human rights violations toward a culture of accountability and responsibility. This is the essence of Nuremberg, and it is central to the legacy that I, too, hope to leave behind.