The long reach of justice

The world’s great villains can no longer escape their crimes

On May 30, a special court in Dakar, Senegal, sentenced Hissene Habre, the former president of Chad, to life imprisonment after finding him guilty of crimes against humanity, torture and sex crimes. The charges against the deposed dictator, who was once a U.S. ally during the Cold War, echoed the language employed by the victorious Allies when they tried top Nazi leaders in Nuremberg 70 years ago.

A coincidence? Far from it.

We are living in a post-Nuremberg world, and every tyrant in even the most far-flung outpost of brutality now understands the new rules at some level. While many dictators and their minions can get away with murdering and mistreating their own people on a massive scale so long as they remain in power, they recognize that once they are no longer in charge, they may never escape the threat of punishment — no matter how far they run.

Or how long they elude justice. Right now, Reinhold Hanning, a 94-year-old former Auschwitz guard, is on trial in Detmold, Germany, as an accessory to the murder of at least 117,000 people. More than 70 years after the end of World War II, Mr. Hanning will be one of the last people to face judgment for their role in the Holocaust. But each such trial reinforces the principle that there is no statute of limitations for these crimes.

It was the Nuremberg trials that first gained broader acceptance for charges such as war crimes and crimes against humanity. In those and subsequent trials that have taken place sporadically up until the present, another underlying principle was firmly established: It is no excuse for a defendant to claim that he was just following orders. When orders of any regime contradict all established norms of human rights and international law, both military and civilian personnel have a duty not to obey them.

As the U.S. military now makes clear to new recruits, they are expected to obey all lawful orders. But the flip side is that they should not obey unlawful orders — for example, to kill civilians, POWs or other prisoners. In the post-Nuremberg world, no one can pretend they are unaware of such distinctions.

At Nuremberg, most of the defendants claimed that such principles did not apply yet, and that they had been trained to obey all commands and could not think for themselves.

But Pennsylvania Judge Michael Musmanno, who presided over the trial of the commanders of the special squads that conducted mass killings of Jews, Gypsies and other civilian “enemies” on the Eastern Front before the killings were shifted to the gas chambers, deftly demolished that defense.

Musmanno asked Otto Ohlendorf, a highly educated defendant who held a law degree, what he would have done if he had been ordered to shoot his sister. For the first time, Ohlendorf had nothing to say. To be consistent with his argument that he had to obey orders blindly, Ohlendorf would have had to reply in the affirmative. But, as Musmanno noted later, a person who would say he would shoot his sister “made himself something less than human.”

To be sure, despots and their henchmen still get away with actions that are less than human on a regular basis. We only have to recall the genocidal policies of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, the mass slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda, and the Srebrenica and other massacres in the former Yugoslavia. And the drumbeat of mass murder and other atrocities continues across much of the Middle East, targeting Christians and Muslims of whatever is considered the wrong sectarian or political persuasion.

But in an earlier era, such actions would have triggered revenge killings, torture and imprisonment by whoever took power next — not special tribunals and other trials where the evidence is weighed, defendants have access to lawyers, and the principles of justices are spelled out and upheld. As for those who managed to escape the initial rounds of vengeance, they often found sanctuary elsewhere.

Now there is no sanctuary; no murderer can be certain he will never be tracked down.

Josef Mengele, the Auschwitz SS doctor known as the “Angel of Death,” who carried out particularly gruesome experiments on prisoners, managed to elude justice until he drowned while swimming off a beach in Brazil in 1979. Yet he was convinced until the end that Israeli agents were after him, making him “a prisoner of his own nightmare of capture,” as a U.S. Justice Department report put it.

Mengele had escaped his hunters, but he had not escaped their lengthening shadows in the post-Nuremberg world.

That was hardly a satisfactory finale, but it still represents progress. As does every new trial of a deposed tyrant or one of his accessories to mass murder.

Andrew Nagorski, a former Newsweek foreign correspondent, is the author of “The Nazi Hunters” (Simon & Schuster, 2016).