Personal Responsibility (international law)

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“When the war ended the city was chosen as the site of the War Crimes Tribunal. Their
work became know as the Nuremberg Trails. Leading Nazi war criminals were tried for
conspiracy and crimes against world peace, the rules of warfare, and humanity. The trials
became a milestone in judicial history as the birthplace for a new law of nations: For the first
time in history, sentences were pronounced according to the principle of personal
responsibility on the part of the individual. It was the end of “But I was only following

(From Nuremburg to Linz, 2012)

“The great goal of Nuremberg was the amplification and clarification of international criminal law, to strengthen the foundations for world peace and order for the future. I believe the major legal significance of the Nuremberg trials lies in those portions of the opinions, which deal with the area of personal responsibility for international law crimes. The Nuremberg Tribunals, themselves international, applied international penal law to international crimes.”  (Link)

From Wiki:

Principle IV states: “The fact that a person acted pursuant to order of his Government or of a superior does not relieve him from responsibility under international law, provided a moral choice was in fact possible to him”.

This principle could be paraphrased as follows: “It is not an acceptable excuse to say ‘I was just following my superior’s orders'”.

Previous to the time of the Nuremberg Trials, this excuse was known in common parlance as “Superior Orders“. After the prominent, high profile event of the Nuremberg Trials, that excuse is now referred to by many as “Nuremberg Defense“. In recent times, a third term, “lawful orders” has become common parlance for some people. All three terms are in use today, and they all have slightly different nuances of meaning, depending on the context in which they are used.

Nuremberg Principle IV is legally supported by the jurisprudence found in certain articles in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which deal indirectly with conscientious objection. It is also supported by the principles found in paragraph 171 of the Handbook on Procedures and Criteria for Determining Refugee Status which was issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). Those principles deal with the conditions under which conscientious objectors can apply for refugee status in another country if they face persecution in their own country for refusing to participate in an illegal war.

Other links:  legal dictionary; expanding the concept of personal responsibility.