Benjamin Ferencz, a great man whose words are already missed

He would have exasperated at Syria’s reintegration into the Arab League, or at Russia’s presidency of the Security Council. This legendary activist for international justice and former Nuremberg prosecutor died in April, aged 103. 

On May 7, we learned that the Arab League was reintegrating Syria, whose three dignitaries, including President El-Assad’s special security advisor, will be tried in France in absentia in 2024 for complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity. Additionally, last year, a German court in Koblenz convicted a former colonel in charge of Syrian intelligence investigations, found guilty of having ordered or perpetuated acts of torture against at least 4,000 prisoners.

The normalization of the Syrian regime at the initiative of Saudi Arabia establishes, as the press has noted, “a patent of impunity” for a “state of barbarity“, where more than 300,000 civilians had been killed during the war between 2011 and 2021, representing 1.5% of the population.

This Arab realpolitik is frighteningly consistent with European reality, which has seen Russia – whose President has now been indicted for war crimes committed in Ukraine – taking the presidency of the United Nations Security Council from April 1 to May 1, 2023. At the same time, China, another permanent member of the Security Council, which is supposed to safeguard world peace and security, has been accused by the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights of committing multiple crimes against the Uighur minority in Xinjiang, which the Geneva-based UN office alleges could amount to crimes against humanity.

No letter this month

Following this grim news from the Arab League, I looked through the “Letter-to-the-Editor” sections of major American newspapers for the wise and outraged words of Benjamin Ferencz, man of immense moral conscience, prosecutor at the Nuremberg trials at the age of 27, who had become the tireless spokesman for the need of universal justice in this world.

A Transylvania native whose family immigrated to the USA when he was only 10 months old, a Harvard graduate, he was entrusted, at such a young age, with the “greatest murder trial in history“, where 22 members of the SS Einsatzgruppen were tried and convicted for the murder of over a million Jews. He has always made his voice heard in defense of international law and denounced its violations, including those committed by his own country.

In 2003, he published a reader’s letter in the New York Times in which he noted, in relation to Iraq, that “A preemptive military strike not authorized by the Security Council would clearly violate the UN Charter that legally binds all nations.”. Again in 2011, in a letter to the editor of the New York Times, he questioned the jubilation surrounding Bin Laden’s assassination, writing that “secret nonjudicial decisions based on political or military considerations undermine democracy“. In 2020, at the age of 100, in a reader’s letter to the New York Times, he rebelled again against the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the Iranian general killed at Baghdad airport by an American drone. He wrote: “The administration recently announced that, on orders of the president, the United States had “taken out” – which really means “murdered” – an important military leader of a country with which we were not at war […] I view such immoral action as a clear violation of national and international law.”

I didn’t find a reader’s letter from Benjamin Ferencz in the New York Times this month because he passed away, at the age of 103, in April 2023.

His contribution to the construction of an international order based on the rule of law was immense, particularly through his writings and his ruthless activism, since the 1970s, in favor of an International Criminal Court (ICC), whose Statute his own country has still not yet ratified. As the last witness for the Office of the Prosecutor in the first war crimes trial before the ICC – the Lubanga trial – in The Hague in August 2011, Benjamin Ferencz declared in court: “Let the voice and verdict of this esteemed global court now speak for the awakening conscience of the world.” 

Integrity and loyalty

Tributes to Benjamin Ferencz following his loss have been innumerable and unanimous. However, it is indicative of our polarized world that the eulogies in the Anglo-Saxon press largely failed to mention – as the website The Intercept pointed out – his stance against his own country. In particular, his statements that the highest-ranking members of George W. Bush’s administration, including the former president himself, should be tried for war crimes committed in Iraq.It does not matter. Benjamin Ferencz’s unfailing integrity and unwavering loyalty to principles of international law have awakened thousands of consciences around the world. In his footsteps, they will follow – without ever retreating – his fight for a better world based on law, and not the realpolitik akin to Gehenna.

The article first appeared in French on Le Temps as part of a Civitas Maxima/Le Temps collaboration, on the 15th of May, 2023.

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