Recently in the CISD office, we’ve been looking through the minutes of the National Offices Conference. This was one of the key events in the history of the UNWCC – a summit bringing together representatives of all sixteen national offices that worked with the Commission in the Royal Courts of Justice, in May/June 1945, with the aim of coordinating and giving impetus to the unprecedented set of war crimes trials planned. You can see some footage of the NOC here and here, although in both cases, the sound track has been lost (if you know of any Movietone or British Pathe archives that might have intact sound, get in touch!).

One of the major occasions for the conference was the tide of the war. While the UNWCC had been founded back in 1943, when the outcome of the war was still not certain, by May 1945, much had changed. Concentration camps – and entire occupied countries – had been liberated, and a few weeks before the National Offices Conference met, VE day had been celebrated. The chairman of the Commission – Lord Wright – stated the new direction that the organisation would take:

‘The time had come when the mere collection of information must be changed into action, and action meant the trial of criminals and their conviction, sentence, and punishment where appropriate. To be effective, justice had to be expeditious. Punishment of the criminals would serve the double purpose of retribution to satisfy the people’s demand for justice and of warning and example to deter such crimes in future.’

A bold, blunt, statement of what the Commission sought to do, and why it sought to do it. While there are parts of its phrasing that sit uncomfortably with modern criminal justice – the idea of war crimes trials as ‘retribution’ has (at least in part) given way to a greater focus on justice and reconciliation, for example) – it nonetheless touches on many issues faced in international criminal justice today, such as the need for information gathering as a basis for action, and the importance of speedy, authoritative trial proceedings.

Despite its short length (only 97 A4 pages – fairly light compared to the thousands of pages of charge files we’ve been sifting through), it’s still a fairly dense document, and so we’re still working our way through it, chasing up the references it makes, and placing it in its historical context. Nonetheless, a few interesting issues relating to the participating countries have emerged.

The documents provide an interesting perspective on the growing independence of India, for example. While much of India’s participation in the Commission was closely linked with that of the UK, it’s particularly notable to observe the way that India is increasingly treated as an autonomous state throughout the Commission’s work, and how it’s acting as a state in its own right, a full two years before independence. We’re also looking into crimes against Indian troops, which largely took place in North Africa, and often seem to have involved particular singling out of Indian soldiers:

‘… So far as Indian cases are concerned, the majority of war crimes against Indian troops have been committed in the course of the campaigns in North Africa. Unfortunately the refusal of the Axis powers to allow the Protecting Power and the Red Cross to function in the North African war zone has cut off important channels of information. In consequence until the end of hostilities the best results cannot be expected.’

The NOC minutes also raise interesting questions about the USSR’s participation in postwar justice, and the links between its efforts and those of the UNWCC. The Soviet Union was not a UNWCC member, instead handling postwar criminal trials through its Extraordinary State Commission. Many members of the Conference bemoan this state of affairs, mentioning the mutual desire for cooperation and the ‘diplomatic reasons’ that foiled it, as well as their own efforts to maintain contact between the two Commissions. The broader reasons for this state of affairs are known (see Plesch and Sattler, p7) but it will be interesting to trace these debates through the machinery and records of the early UN.

With the 70th anniversary of the NOC coming up, we’re also planning a series of events around the Conference, so watch this space!