Touching a piece of history

This is a guest post by Ana-Carolina Sarmento, one of our project volunteers, about her experiences delving into the UNWCC archives.

There is one question every historian I have ever met has always asked me. How can one fully understand the present and wonder about the future, without ever looking back and contesting the past? The truth is that we seldom find the time to stop for a minute or two and think about the origins of many things in the world that we tend to take for granted.

One such origin that we often take for granted is that of the UN. From history books, political science articles, and even the odd undergrad essay done as part of the week spent studying political institutions, we often unknowingly repeat the big misconception that the United Nations was born in the aftermath of World War II. Through the ‘United Nations in the World’ course at SOAS, though, we’ve had a chance to examine the wartime origins of the UN and its important role in defeating the Axis Powers. The assessment of the processes by which this important organization came into existence shed light on many important issues regarding its role in the contemporary world. From the conferences that led to its creation, to the visions, expectations and hopes placed on the UN by colonial Western powers and their , and even the struggles of a handful of women in San Francisco to make the UN Charter even a little gender-inclusive back in 1945, we’ve learned how many of the issues we face today aren’t comprehensible from a presentist ‘last ten to twenty years’ approach, but go back far further, with their roots in old yellowing documents and archives describing near-forgotten conferences.

And then I learned that Nuremberg and Far East trials – often deemed as the first and most notable international tribunals, that were the sole predecessors in the to subsequent tribunals in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, actually had a predecessor themselves: the United Nations War Crimes Commission. This little-known UN agency operated with the goal of identifying, classifying, and making pre-trial assessments of alleged war criminals in Europe and Asia, and assisting national governments in prosecuting them. This wasn’t just the usual Britain, France, and America, either – a range of states including Yugoslavia (both royalist and communist), China, and a nascently independent India all took part. SOAS’ UNWCC Research Project is dedicated to the study of this organisation’s role in postwar justice, and to the promulgation of many of its archives, many of which have only been made public recently.

And so, it was, one Friday afternoon, that we came up to the CISD Study room only to find six giant packing crates addressed to Dan Plesch, directly from the late 1940s. On the face of it, perhaps not the most exciting extracurricular activity – but fascinating to look through and pore over.

A sample of the files found in the archive, these from Committee III examining the scope of war crimes prosecutions. Not pictured: the bugs who had to be shoo-ed out of the old boxes they were found in!

These boxes were in the basement of the EU Head of Delegation to the UN, Thomas Mayr-Harting, whose father worked for the UNWCC. As we opened the boxes – taking good care to air them out and evict the hectic colonies of insects that had taken up residence over the decades – we held dusty pieces of forgotten history right there in our hands. I touched a piece of paper that declared Adolf Hitler a war criminal in 1942, indicting him for a trial that would never happen. I touched a piece of paper explaining the legal basis for trying rape as a war crime in 1945, much earlier period than most people are aware of – an area of law that would not really be re-explored for fifty years, until the ICTY. I touched a piece of paper that established that “just following orders” could not excuse any liability of war criminals. These weren’t just dry, sterile records of events and proceedings – many of them were filled with hand-written amendments, allowing you to get a sense of the processes, debates, and human efforts that went on behind the scenes. Wrapped around those documents were newspaper pages from that time. I was able to read who had gotten married, the newest products being advertised, but also to analyse the rhetoric being used at the time. Not only did these help us understand the lived reality that those involved in the early UN, but they also showed how much the organisation was the centre of media attention at the time, with dozens of insights into its history in the wrapping paper alone. For instance, I would have never guessed that the USSR opposed calling the today so well known veto power as such and that the UK media would criticize it for it. Perhaps I could have found much of this information in history books and on the Internet, but there is something special and intriguing about these archives because you can see in such a vivid manner the processes, opinions, peoples’ work and efforts that laid the foundations of things that today we simply take for granted.

One of the most interesting things about this particular archive has been the way it’s shone a light on the politics behind the UNWCC’s work, and international criminal justice more generally. The US representative, Herbert Pell, can here be seen pushing for the Court to examine domestic crimes against humanity (such as the persecution of German Jews) alongside interstate war crimes; Pell’s activism on this played a major role in promoting the domestic components of the Nuremberg trials.

Digging up things from the past is not a task executed primarily out of curiosity – though the sheer enjoyment of opening an old archive shouldn’t be under-estimated but also due to its potentially useful value for today’s world. The next stages of the Research Project will allow us to engage with the archives in greater depth, and perhaps help us do exactly that.