The Nuremberg Trials were the victorious Allies’ attempt to bring senior figures within the Nazi regime to justice for crimes they had committed against humanity during the 12 years of the Third Reich, and particularly during World War II. The legitimacy of the trials was questioned at the time, given that this was the first occasion that any attempt had been made to apply what has since become known as universal justice; but they laid the foundations for the development of a system of international law that has functioned with varying degrees of success since.
Comparisons with the Nuremberg Trials are always problematic: the tendency is to assume that a comparison is being made with the crimes committed, the magnitude of which is difficult to match. Needless to say, this is not my intention here: atrocities are atrocities and are made up of an infinite number of stories of suffering that should never be trivialized, measured, or compared in terms of their gravity, because each all of them are beyond comparison.
Instead, let’s look the reasons behind the Nuremberg Trials being held: the Allies were prepared to pursue crimes without precedent, and to do so created an international military tribunal to judge the 23 principal military and political leaders of the Third Reich who were still alive in 1945. The aim was to show that crimes committed against the basic tenets of humanity would not go unpunished, and that the trial would be carried out in accordance with the laws available at the time, rather than going along with Stalin’s proposal, put forward at the Tehran Conference in 1943, to summarily execute between 50,000 and 100,000 German officers after the conflict.
The most difficult part of what we know and what remains to be known about the surveillance system set up by the US government under the auspices of the National Security Agency and other bodies is that it surpasses any possible evaluation on the basis of international justice. As human beings, we are not prepared to accept that every thing we say, do, think, or write, or that our relationships, including economic ones, are permanently under observation by a government ready and able to use the information it acquires for its own ends. There is no name, and thus no punishment, for such a crime.
Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, in large part motivated by the events of September 11, which today we commemorate, built a structure designed to submit to exhaustive surveillance all communication produced by just about every means on the planet. They have since used this systematically not only to safeguard US security, but for political and economic ends. This has involved listening to communications between the political centers of other countries, many of them allies, as well as personal communications not just online, but also by telephone and other means, as well as carrying out industrial espionage against the leading companies of every country in the world. This is an unprecedented violation of every rule governing international relations, and points to the creation of a new kind of society, one that has raised George Orwell to the status of the greatest clairvoyant in history.
But the real problem lies deeper even than this violation, serious though it is: it doesn’t lie in perpetuating Cold War strategies at a time when they can no longer be justified under any pretext, or even in using these strategies to control the world, creating a totalitarian system that allows the United States to control the world’s communication systems. And nor is it even in the systematic and persistent violation of the US Constitution and international human rights legislation. No, the real problem here is that the people who have committed these crimes believe that they have done nothing wrong and that their behavior is entirely justified, as well as the fact that there is absolutely nothing that we can do to rectify what has been done and is being done.
The real dilemma lies in the fact that despite the scale and seriousness of the systematic spying carried out by the United States, there is no international body, including the ridiculous and utterly useless United Nations, able to act. There is no possibility of sanctions, or of bringing to trial those who have carried out these systematic and serious violations of all our rights and of international law. For some years now we have been witness to an anomaly: a network built and managed by the United States has turned into the planet’s nervous system, but it remains under the jurisdiction of a country that has proved itself time and again of lacking the criteria required to assume responsibility for its management.
One reason for this is that the alternative of putting the internet under the control of the United Nations would clearly be worse, exposing us to the risk that the internet would be managed according to the criteria of countries run along totalitarian lines and lacking even the most basic respect for human rights. We continue to live within a bad system for fear of falling under one that is worse, and apparently with no alternative.
The complexity of the situation we now find ourselves in extends beyond the question of how to manage the internet, and forces us to face the very real possibility that we now live in a world the running of which can no longer be trusted to any minimally trustworthy authority or collection of authorities; a world that, de facto, lacks any effective justice system able to regulate what takes place beyond our increasingly irrelevant national borders; a world in which criminal behavior cannot be brought to book, and for which nobody is responsible because there is no ambit where crimes that are unprecedented in their scale and nature can be judged.
And we will likely remain stuck in this impasse, which some are able to take advantage of for their own benefit, while the rest of us can only stand by and watch as the rules that once guaranteed fundamental rights, and that took so long to establish, are systematically broken, leading us to society that the vast majority of us find unacceptable, but which, in the absence of viable alternatives, we can seemingly do nothing to prevent happening. It’s as simple as this: we are witnessing serious crimes against the very nature of human society, against the social contract, being carried out, and we know that there is no way to stop this or to bring those responsible to justice.
This is not a problem that can be resolved by trying to establish some supposed controls over the NSA, which would simply be systematically violated as has already happened, not even by impeaching a Nobel Peace Prize winning president who will go down in history as the man who set up the dictatorship of permanent surveillance. Neither can this be addressed by electing a different president, nor by setting up a system within a country that has violated just about every law outside its borders.
No, the scale of the problem requires us to put those responsible, leaders, ideologues, and bureaucrats, in the dock in a 21st century Nuremberg Trial, a tribunal that, as things stand, nobody is able either to propose, and much less bring about. This is the real tragedy here.