The United Nations War Crimes Commission was a little-known United Nations agency operating between 1943 and 1948, with the aim of identifying, classifying, and assisting national governments with the trials of war criminals in the European and East Asian theatres. Working in parallel to the more famous Nuremberg and Far East trial processes, it assisted with an unprecedented over 30,000 cases – far more than Nuremberg, UN-supported, and International Criminal Court caseloads combined.
Against heavy opposition from Allied politicians and diplomats who wanted – for a number of reasons – to see war crimes by Axis powers forgotten, the UNWCC was a key force in ensuring accountability for atrocities. Through its work, member states pursued well-researched, internationally verified and approved cases not just against generals and heads of state, but against individual soldiers and units for low-level crimes. The UNWCC broke new ground in pursuing a wide range of war crimes, including routine prosecutions of sexual violence, torture (including waterboarding), and large-scale massacres that we would today recognise as genocide and crimes against humanity. Many of those involved in its creation went on to become key figures in the fields of human rights and international law.
Owing to its politicised closure, however, and the sealing of its archives, the UNWCC went largely unremarked upon for much of the twentieth century. Despite some academic study of its work, and increased awareness due to the role its records played during the 1985 Waldheim affair, the inaccessibility of the UNWCC’s sealed archives meant that modern scholars and lawyers were unable to use the work it did and the precedents it set. This was particularly relevant during the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, where lack of access and awareness of its work on rape as a war crime severely hindered prosecutorial efforts, which had to start from scratch.
After some academic attention – from writers such as Arieh Kochavi and Christopher Simpson – work to uncover the UNWCC’s history developed significantly in the 2010s. Following a campaign by a range of academic researchers and legal practitioners – led by Dr. Dan Plesch – the UN first allowed limited access to the Commission’s records, then, through its United Nations Archives and Records Management Section (UNARMS), disclosed the whole archive to a number of research and educational organisations across the world, including the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Wiener Library, and SOAS, University of London.
This website documents the history of the UNWCC, and archives its documents for public use. It also provides supporting documentation for Dan Plesch’s new book, Human Rights After Hitler, that provides a detailed overview of the Commission’s work.