Researchers to UN: Make WWII Archives Public

February 25, 2012  

Leading British and American researchers are campaigning to have the United Nations make its archived files on cases against World War II criminals public, The Associated Press reported on Saturday.

According to the report, the files, which are in 400 boxes, are locked inside UN headquarters and document 10,000 cases against accused World War II criminals, from Belgian charges against Adolf Hitler to the trial of a Japanese commander for inciting rape.

The campaigners are arguing the files are not only historically valuable but also might unearth legal precedents that could help bring some of today’s war criminals to justice.

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is also seeking to have the archive opened, AP reported.

“It’s outrageous that material which could help bring today’s war criminals to justice and improve our understanding of the Holocaust is still secret,” British academic Dan Plesch, who is leading the push for access, told AP. “The whole archive should be online for scholars and historians.”

The archive belonged to the United Nations War Crimes Commission, a body established in October 1943 by 17 allied nations to issue lists of alleged war criminals, examine the charges against them and try to assure their arrest and trial.

The war crimes commission was shut down in 1948, AP reported, and the following year, the UN Secretariat drew up rules making the files available only to governments on a confidential basis. In 1987, limited access was granted only to researchers and historians.

Plesch obtained several documents seen by AP. One of them is a letter Belgium sent to the commission on March 15, 1945, filing unspecified charges against Hitler.

AP also reported that minutes of committee meetings in 1947 document cases in Greece and Poland involving rape and mass murder. Another document, signed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Allied Commander in the Pacific, details the conviction of a Japanese commander for permitting or inciting his troops to rape a woman.

Those cases could have set a precedent for the prosecution of rape as a crime against humanity in the post-World War II era and reinforce it today, Plesch told the news agency.

Duplicates of commission documents obtained by AP from the National Archives in Maryland include staff lists for the Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald with the names, ranks and accusations against them.

Plesch, who directs the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, stumbled on the archive while researching the beginnings of the United Nations for a book he wrote.

He discovered among the papers a copy of a form from the “United Nations War Crimes Commission” outlining charges by Canada against a German Panzer brigade commander during 1943-44.

“This told me that there was something much, much bigger here that I wanted to know about, and that people needed to know about,” Plesch told AP.

He added that records indicate that alongside the Nuremberg trials, where prominent Nazis faced justice, the UN commission endorsed war crimes trials for some 10,000 individuals. It is known that 2,000 trials took place in 15 countries including the United States, he said.

While copies of some of the documents also exist in other archives around the world, Plesch told AP the UN’s collection “is the only central repository for the records of the trials from these 15 tribunals.”

He and two other researchers have now asked UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to “take the necessary steps to ensure full public access to all the records” of the commission.

“Opening the archives will have significant public benefits,” the researchers wrote in a letter to Ban. “It will help the UN in its work by providing new information for Holocaust scholars and new information for states, inter-governmental organizations and the legal and academic communities concerned with international criminal law.”

UN spokesman Martin Nesirky confirmed to AP that the secretary general had received the request and “understands the interest in the archives.”

“He has asked UN experts to look at the request,” Nesirky was quoted as having said.

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