On my way here today, I had an image in my mind that is probably familiar to almost all of us from our history books – a black-and-white photo from 1946 that shows this room, Courtroom 600 of the Nuremberg Palace of Justice.
Over there, in the dock, sat the leading figures of the Nazi regime, their lawyers in front of them. Opposite them sat the judges and prosecutors of the Allies. The press, spectators and police were also in attendance.
It was almost like a normal criminal trial. And yet the photo of this scene is indelibly etched into our minds.
The more I thought about it, the clearer it seemed to me that the remarkable, historic thing about it was precisely this sense of normality.
It was here that men sat in court, men who were responsible for the most heinous crimes in history and had acted against all principles of human civilisation.
And yet their judges were not out to get revenge, but granted the defendants a fair trial, thus confronting them with the very same principles of human civilisation that they had so infamously violated.
This triumph of civilisation over inhumanity is what characterises the Nuremberg Trials to this day and makes this place, Courtroom 600, so significant.
It was here that the foundations were laid not only for the efforts to come to terms with the National Socialist era in Germany. Nuremberg of all places, the city of the National Socialists’ party congresses, became the birthplace of a new understanding of law and justice:
No one is above the law – not even the most powerful!
Robert H. Jackson, the US Chief Prosecutor during the Nuremberg Trials, put it thus in his plea: “This trial represents mankind’s desperate effort to apply the discipline of the law to statesmen who have used their powers of state to attack the foundations of the world’s peace and to commit aggressions against the rights of their neighbours. This trial is part of the great effort to make the peace more secure.”
To put it another way, justice is a vital prerequisite for lasting peace. For me, this realisation contains one of the most important, if not the most important, lesson from the past century.
This lesson finds its expression in the Rome Statute, whose 20th anniversary we are celebrating today. It is embodied by the International Criminal Court, which, more so than almost any other international organisation, stands for the primacy of the rule of law over injustice.
When some people now declare this institution, of all institutions, to be dead in the water, then we must not allow that to go unchallenged. On the contrary, we should take it as an incentive to continue doing all we can to promote acceptance of the International Criminal Court and its jurisprudence around the globe.
Universality remains our goal – in the interests of the victims and with the support of all those who, like us, place their trust in the civilising power of the law.
The zeitgeist of our age appears to militate against this. We are all aware of the difficulties that the Court has to contend with and which you, Ms Bensouda, will doubtless address in a moment. These difficulties are not an isolated problem facing international criminal law or the International Criminal Court, but rather the symptoms of what is in part a conscious renunciation of the rules-based order, of a worldwide crisis of multilateralism.
It goes without saying that this crisis doesn’t stop at the International Criminal Court, which, after all, stands for compliance with the elementary rules of humanity.
No matter how much this development worries us, I’m confident that we will be equal to it. This confidence is based on three things.
• Firstly, despite all opposition, we have succeeded in furthering international criminal law step by step. I admit that it took a long time until the International Criminal Court was granted jurisdiction over the crime of aggression this summer, over 70 years after Nuremberg.
But it was granted this jurisdiction.
The four elements that form the heart of international criminal law have thus been laid down. However, what is more important is that we have come somewhat closer to achieving the dream of men like Jackson – the dream of leaving war as a means of conducting politics behind us, once and for all.
• Secondly, I feel optimistic because I see that determination is growing among those who defend the International Criminal Court against undue criticism and political pressure and stand up against the erosion of its authority.
In recent weeks, I have held talks with many of my counterparts on what we can do to prevent the disintegration of the international order. This gave rise to the idea of an alliance of multilateralists – an alliance of countries that pool their strengths in order to underpin and continue to develop the rules-based order. There is great interest in this idea, particularly as regards international criminal jurisdiction.
Just a few weeks ago, six North and South American countries joined forces and sent a referral regarding the preliminary examination of the situation in Venezuela launched by you, Ms Bensouda.
We expressly welcome this, also because this example shows that people believe in the International Criminal Court, and not only here in Nuremberg, but also in many parts of the world.
• My third and last point concerns the crucial issue of accountability. We also feel pain and rage when the worst war crimes and crimes against humanity go unpunished. I’m thinking of the terrible poison gas attacks in Syria, for example. However, looking beyond this conflict, which receives extensive media coverage, terrible crimes are committed time and again in many other places.
But we’re not simply standing by and letting this happen. Along with our partners, we have drawn up new ways to secure evidence. In Syria, for instance, we are ensuring that evidence is not irretrievably lost.
Our message to perpetrators and victims is that justice will prevail.
We will also be guided by this maxim as a non-permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. We want to ensure that perpetrators are consistently held to account.
In view of the fronts in the Security Council, this will be no easy task. However, the fight for justice requires courage and stamina, particularly from Germany, as this fight always means striving for human dignity.
Ladies and gentlemen,
This battle could not be won without the creativity and courage of civil society, without people who often take great risks in the struggle for human rights, without partners like all of you here in this room. I am very grateful indeed to you for this partnership and for your support and stamina.
In particular, I would like to thank our host, the International Nuremberg Principles Academy, whose goal is expressed in its name – namely to implement the principles that guided Robert H. Jackson and the authors of the Rome Statute in the city where the history of international criminal law began.
Let us continue to further this history together, without ignoring the great challenges that the crisis of multilateralism poses for us, but instead with confidence and faith that the rule of law will ultimately prevail over injustice. That is the legacy of Nuremberg.
Thank you very much.