Deadline: 15 June 2021.
75 years after Nuremberg, what happened to “maxi-trials” that saw dozens of criminals — Nazis, or Japanese nationals before the International Military Tribunal for the Far East — prosecuted and judged together? Despite their shortcomings or even failures, their historical legacy persists. Given the chronic crisis faced by international criminal justice, would collective trials be possible and desirable today?
The expressions “mass trial” and “maxi-trial” convey diverse realities. One is the emphasis on class-actions, that bring together several victims allying against a company, a State or, more rarely, one or a few individuals. In the criminal realm, “mass trials” and “maxi-trials” are reminiscent of the ones held against the Italian mafia since the 1980s, and more recently against the Calabrian mafia within the bunker court of Lamezia Terme. What these civil and criminal variants have in common is a desire to aggregate judicial action for the sake of efficiency, but also for symbolic purposes.
However, no “mass trial” or “maxi-trial” has been held on the international level for international crimes since Nuremberg and Tokyo. On this anniversary, could one imagine such trials involving dozens of defendants being tried simultaneously occurring again? Given the criticisms levelled at international criminal justice in terms of its administration, costs, and length of its proceedings, the benefits of collective trials may seem attractive: economies of scale, additional resources, shorter deadlines, an increased exemplariness, etc. Mass trials have a symbolic potential that exceeds that of prosecutions based on the idea of individual responsibility, even though the collective dimension of international crimes is increasingly recognised. Why would the international community be reluctant to display its power and repressive arsenal in this way?
Some would answer, as Arendt that “the cry ‘We are all guilty', which at first hearing sounded so very noble and tempting, has actually only served to exculpate to a considerable degree those who actually were guilty. Where all are guilty, nobody is.”
Others will point out that, materially, these trials are not realistic, or that, legally speaking, do not guarantee the principle of a fair trial. It is worth recalling the broad criticism, notably by civil society, that met the trial of more than 800 military personnel following a mutiny in Bangladesh, or of nearly 500 people following the 2016 coup attempt in Turkey, or against hundreds of Egyptian protesters in 2014.
Seventy-five years after the Nuremberg judgment, the time may have come to reflect on the strengths and drawbacks of such unpopular trials, especially when it comes to crimes that are as much individual as collective, and that challenge the categories of both criminal and international law, one shall question their legitimacy and drawbacks. Could they be a new modality of international criminal justice that could respond to some of the criticisms levelled at it? What questions of principle do they raise? How could they be implemented?
These questions, among others, will be the object of an international, bilingual, and hybrid symposium — in person, if possible, at each of the host institutions — jointly organised by the Université libre de Bruxelles (Centre de recherches en droit pénal) and McGill University (Centre for Human Rights and Legal Pluralism) for the 75th anniversary of the Nuremberg judgment, on 4 October 2021.
Several panels will be organised in order to foster a transdisciplinary discussion, between different stances and between practitioners, observers, and academics. Depending on the success of the conference, publication, either as a special issue or a book, will be considered.
Proposals (in French or English) of no more than 500 words, accompanied by a short biographical note (in a single document), should be emailed no later than 15 June 2021 to the attention of Marie-Laurence Hébert-Dolbec, Frédéric Mégret, and Damien Scalia to masstrial [at] ulb.be.
The selected participants will be informed by 30 June 2021. Accommodation — in Brussels or in Montreal — and catering will be provided.