BENJAMIN FERENCZ: You cannot kill an idea with a gun. You can only stop them if you have a better idea. And we have a better idea. The United States of America - to which I am indelibly grateful for the opportunity it gave me as a poor, immigrant boy fleeing poverty and persecution - is a good example. You must teach people that law is always better than war.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
That is Benjamin Ferencz. He is a Hungarian-born, Harvard-educated lawyer who helped prosecute Nazi leaders in the Nuremberg war crimes trial after World War II. While the debate in Washington is focused on whether to take military action in Syria, there are those in Congress suggesting an alternative - some form of international justice. That is something Ferencz has long experience with. Benjamin Ferencz is our Sunday Conversation.
FERENCZ: We don't think in terms of using the International Criminal Court very much. The United States has been opposed, unfortunately; at least, many of the American public has been opposed - I would say a small minority- to using that court because we value our sovereignty, and we want to decide for ourselves when we go to war and when we don't - a very, very dangerous practice, as we're now discovering.
MARTIN: Well, since the International Criminal Court was established in 2002 - really, the world's first permanent war crimes tribunal - it has only delivered two verdicts. There was Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, and former Liberian President Charles Taylor. So what has prevented the ICC from putting more criminals behind bars?
FERENCZ: Well, I'm familiar with all that. Of course, I did the closing statement for the prosecution in the Lubanga case, when I was 92 years old. I was - condemned Nuremberg criminals of murdering over a million people, when I was 27. So I've had long experience in that. And what we have now, in the International Court, is a prototype. It's just beginning. It takes too long. They have to persuade the big powers to support the court more than they have been doing. But it's only up to a court to determine who committed the crime. And crimes are not committed by governments. They're committed by people, by individuals. That was one of the main points coming out of the Nuremberg trials. And we came out with conclusions that the law must apply equally to everyone.
MARTIN: But are you comfortable with the amount of time it takes to bring someone to justice, using the International Criminal Court? As you have mentioned, it can take years.
FERENCZ: Of course I'm not comfortable with it. I wish we could go into court and have a court trial over in three days - as I did in Nuremberg, in the good old days. But even then, they took months for their defense. But the fact that we're not comfortable is not the test. The test is whether it's just or not. Is it just for an individual in any country to conclude that some individual in another country is guilty of supreme crimes and therefore, he should be punished and without a trial of any kind? Is that just?
MARTIN: If you don't mind, I would like to talk more specifically about the Nuremberg trials, your experience there. Those were, of course, the military tribunals that prosecuted 23 Nazi leaders; in many ways, setting the standard for what we now consider to be international justice. I wonder if you could talk a little bit, from a personal perspective, about how your participation in that tribunal - as a prosecutor - shaped your views about justice but more specifically, about individual responsibility.
FERENCZ: The ones I prosecuted, I chose them because of their high rank - I had six SS generals - and higher education. Most of them were Ph.D.s. And every day, they went out and slaughtered every single Jewish man, woman and child they could lay their hands on, including the same for the gypsies and opponents of the Reich. These were intelligent men. They were otherwise decent men, I suppose, but this was caught up in the propaganda of the day - that they were enemies of the state, that Hitler knew they were going to be invaded, that they were guilty of all kinds of crimes, etc. So, I have seen all of that, and I know that although it takes longer for the rule of law to apply, that's the only real answer.
MARTIN: It's interesting to me that you said that these men, you had to choose the close to two dozen people who would be prosecuted. And you say that despite their crimes that they were good men, in other respects.
FERENCZ: Oh, yes, that's always the case. We vilify the adversary as though he had horns - killing his own people; you say Assad is killing his own people. You make it sound like he comes out every morning and begins to spray everybody in the street with poison gas. That's not the case at all, of course. He is - his forces are trying to repel a revolution by rebellions who are trying to overthrow the government.
MARTIN: You were only in your mid-20s when you were tapped to...
FERENCZ: I was 23 years when I went into Army. I was 150 years old when I came out. (Laughing) I served in the military service for three years of combat in ways which are rather unusual. I not only saw the crimes in action, but I also knew the murderers in action. I heard their excuses, their alibis; I got to know them. And by the way, there were 3,000 men in these special extermination squads who every day went out and murdered, in cold blood, thousands of Jews - including thousands of children - whom they didn't even know, one shot at a time. And what happened to them? Nothing. We couldn't try 3,000 people. We'd still be in Nuremberg. So justice is limited. But our goal is always to deter the commission of such crimes by holding accountable the responsible leaders who know - or should know - that they were acting illegally, and that it will cause countless death to innocent civilians.
MARTIN: You are 94 years old. You fought in World War II - every campaign in Europe, in fact. As someone who has known war, helped prosecute some of the world's most heinous war crimes, I wonder how the civil war in Syria looks to you now - with that experience. How do you see that conflict?
FERENCZ: Combat is inevitable. Man will continue to kill his brother as Cain slew his brother, Abel. We will never have a perfect world. But that is no reason to not try to make it better than it is. And you do that by letting people know that if they behave in conduct which is unacceptable to the world community or to most of the world community, that they will be held to personal account in a court of law; where the facts will be ascertained, and the punishment will be set, and the public will understand the facts. You must teach people that law is always better than war. And once they've adopted that principle, I think we will move toward a more humane and peaceful society.
MARTIN: Benjamin Ferencz - he was a prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trial after World War II. Mr. Ferencz, thank you so much for talking with us.
FERENCZ: My pleasure.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.