Hitherto known only to a small group of academics, the United Nations headquarters houses an archive documenting 10,000 cases against accused World War II criminals, all of which belonged to the United Nations War Crimes Commission. The Commission was established in October 1943 by “17 allied nations to issue lists of alleged war criminals – ultimately involving approximately 37,000 individuals – examine the charges against them and try to assure their arrest and trial.” In 1949, the Commission was dissolved and the UN made the files only available to governments on a confidential basis. In 1987, the rules were changed to allow access to researchers and historians who possess authorization from both their government and the UN Secretary-General. Researchers in Britain and America are now campaigning to make the files public.
In addition to contributing to history’s understanding of the Holocaust, says Dr. Dan Plesch, director of the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, “The importance of this archive could lie in prosecuting today for crimes of aggression, rape, cultural crimes, environmental crimes, because there’s a wealth of precedent far beyond Nuremberg. In fact, these trials are 100 times greater in extent than the Nuremberg trials.” According to Plesch,
Records indicate that alongside the Nuremberg trials, where prominent Nazis faced justice, the UN commission endorsed war crimes trials for some 10,000 individuals. It is known that 2,000 trials took place in 15 countries including the United States. The case law of all of these has been forgotten. The Nuremberg trials only constituted one percent of the post-World War II prosecutions. A first look at the UN War Crimes Commission archive of the other 99 percent shows a gold mine of precedent and practice that can help hold modern-day war criminals to account.
Plesch and two other researchers have written a letter to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, urging him to ensure full public access to all the records by pointing out how doing so would be beneficial not just to the public, but to the work of the UN. Paul Shapiro, director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, said the Museum is also seeking to open the War Crimes Commission files, as one of its mandates is to collect archival material.