How international law can protect human rights

Prof. Dr. Christoph Safferling
Prof. Dr. Christoph Safferling (Image: Lérot)

Professor Safferling was recently appointed as director of the International Nuremberg Principles Academy.

Prof. Dr. Christoph Safferling is the new director of the International Nuremberg Principles Academy. In this interview, he explains exactly what the academy does, how his work and research are relevant to our everyday lives and what it means when “the right to life is disregarded during wartime”.

Professor Safferling, you were recently appointed as director of the International Nuremberg Principles Academy. What does the academy do exactly?

The Academy aims to help protect the fundamental principles of international law and thereby address the struggle against impunity for crimes under international law such as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, and crimes of aggression. In essence, the Nuremberg Principles, and also the Academy, are the result of the Nuremberg Trials. The principles were summarized by the United Nations General Assembly in 1946, immediately after the trial ended. For example, one principle states that is that there should be no impunity for international crimes. In the Nuremberg Trials, this is exactly what happened for the first time in human history: People were punished for violating international law.

How is it ensured that the requirements and principles are implemented?

There are several different aspects in our approach. Firstly, we are in involved in educational outreach with training modules for young people. In this way, we want to familiarize students and young lawyers with international criminal law and enable them to demand and apply it in their home countries. Secondly, we want to be a place where people talk about current issues in international criminal law and try to develop solutions.

How can the work of the academy affect our everyday lives?

Our students and trainees should learn about the injustice of National Socialism and witness that people can also interpret the law to pretend that even the most despicable, inhuman acts are justified. After the Second World War, the Judges’ Trial was one of twelve major trials held against those responsible for National Socialism. It is little wonder they reached the verdict: “The murderer’s dagger was hidden under the lawyer’s robe.” This is something I would like to teach our students and trainees. In this respect, our work has a very specific impact on education, particularly for law students at FAU. We also encourage not only students but members of the public and schoolchildren to engage critically with this topic.

What do you think makes this work so relevant?

There will always be states in the world that do not accept human rights. Even if we assume that they are respected everywhere and that there is a will not to start wars, there will still always be people who break the mold. These must or can be brought to justice by the means of criminal law. The use of criminal law must, of course, follow certain principles, since it has a dual role in relation to human rights that work in favor of the victims, but they also work to protect the perpetrator from serious abuse by the state. We call this defendant’s rights and procedural fairness. At this point, criminal law protects the human rights of both sides.

Prof. Dr. Christoph Safferling
Prof. Dr. Christoph Safferling presents the results of the Rosenburg project. Prof. Safferling investigated how the Nazi regime affected the Federal Ministry of Justice. (Image: FAU/Erich Malter)

How would you describe the relationship between criminal law and human rights in more detail?

The connection between international criminal law and human rights is not entirely clear to many people. For example, in an armed conflict, the number one human right, the right to life, is disregarded. Even if soldiers are allowed to kill the enemy’s soldiers during wartime, we need to be aware that the right to life is being disregarded. Human rights are particularly at risk during wartime. By threatening punishment, it should now be possible to maintain at least one core of human dignity, even during a war. For example, a soldier who poses with corpses or body parts on Facebook is liable to prosecution for a war crime. It is very important to understand that international criminal law protects human rights here. This is also interesting at the research level and part of applied human rights research at FAU.

What are your goals for the next five to ten years in this field?

There are two goals that I have directly. Firstly, I want to gain new knowledge in the field of international criminal law and to contribute to making the development of international criminal law in Germany more internationally known. The prosecutors and judges in Germany do an excellent job in prosecuting war crimes and genocide. Since the court language here is German, this is hardly noticed abroad. The second goal is to document and publish the Nuremberg Trials including procedural files that are not yet public for researchers and to the general public. We can learn a lot from these documents both historically and legally.

Prof. Dr. Christoph Safferling in the studio
Prof. Dr. Christoph Safferling in the studio at FAU. (Image: FAU/Julian Popp)

About Prof. Dr. Christoph Safferling

Prof. Dr. Christoph Safferling

Chair of Criminal Law, Criminal Procedure and International and International Law with ICLU – Professor Dr. Christoph Safferling, LL.M. (LSE)

Prof. Safferling’s website

International Nuremberg Principles Academy

The International Nuremberg Principles Academy is dedicated to the promotion of international criminal law and human rights. The Academy is based in Nuremberg, the historic birthplace of modern international criminal law. Aware of this historical heritage, the Academy supports the fight against impunity for acts of genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes of aggression under international law.

FAU Human Rights Podcast

The podcast of the Center for Human Rights Erlangen-Nuremberg (CHREN) at FAU: Scientists talk about current issues as well as legal and political challenges from a human rights perspective.

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