For a man who spent half of his life blowing trumpets against war, it was ironic that the last of Nuremberg Trials prosecutors would die at the height of Russia-Ukraine conflict and on a Good Friday.
Benjamin Ferencz, a diminutive figure who commanded strong presence in international law meetings for the last 50 years, died on Friday at the age of 103.
He served as prosecutor at the International Military Tribunal, popularly known as Nuremberg Trial, in-charge of the trial of notorious SS death squads in 1947.
Yesterday, the International Criminal Court paid glowing tributes to the man who spent the last of 25 years of his life promoting the court and campaigning for actualisation of the “crime of aggression”.
“As a member of civil society, Mr Ferencz was one of the foremost advocates for a permanent, independent international criminal court. His determination and optimism inspired generations of lawyers, activists and diplomats to work toward ‘replacing the law of force with the force of law’, which was one of Mr Ferencz’s well-known mottos, along with ‘law, not war’,” ICC said in a statement.
In 2012 at the height of Kenyan trials, Ferencz gave a lecture at the “Courtroom 100” in Nuremberg where Nazi leaders were tried. At the conference attended by this writer as well as former Kenyan Attorney General Githu Muigai, Ferencz was the main attraction.
A nostalgic Ferencz described his journey down the history, pleading with the world to invest in the things that make peace.
“I was a combat soldier. I have seen wars in action as very few men have, and survived to tell the story. I have been a witness of the liberation of many concentration camps. I have seen all the horrors of war. The notion that all the crimes come out of war is absolutely true,” he told the symposium hosted by Wayamo Foundation.
He reiterated that courts cannot try all criminals, but would do much good in deterring crimes.
“I had 22 defendants in that dock. Their units, consisting of 3,000 men, had murdered over a million people in cold blood. We tried 22 out of 3,000 because there are only 22 seats in the dock: ridiculous, but that‘s the truth,” he said, sending the courtroom into laughter.
Ferencz gave many lectures across world at the Hague, Nuremberg, Kampala and beyond. In May 2017, he delivered a guest lecture at the ICC before court judges, imploring them not to be discouraged.
“The world has not yet learned that law is better than war. Law, not war, is the answer. Law continues to be humanity’s hope for a more just and peaceful world,” he said.
On that day, the Municipality of The Hague honoured him by naming the footpath adjacent to the Peace Palace after him. On December 17, 2020, the court decorated him with the title of Distinguished Honorary Fellow of the International Criminal Court and unveiled his bust to permanently sit at the court’s premises.
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Over the years, platitudes accompanied him. Former ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda once described him as a “unique individual”, saying “in life, there are those whose contagious optimism and sense of purpose bring the seemingly impossible within reach.”
ICC judge Chile Eboe-Osuji described him as “a living legend in the field of international criminal law”. At the 2012 Nuremberg symposium, former ICC judge Hans Peter Kaul described him as a “a man, not really tall, but standing tall in terms of principles, courage and experience in life.” Kaul died two years later.
“A big loss indeed, but what a life well lived. A life of service to humanity. ‘Law not war’ was his mantra, his compass and his prayer. Always kind, compassionate and such good fun. I cherish my memories of and with him. Inna lilahi wa inna lilahi raji’un,” ICC Prosecutor Karim Khan tweeted upon learning his death.
Ferencz was born in Transylvania, immigrated to the US, was educated in New York and at the Harvard Law School. He is credited with reconciling Germany and Israel in the years after the war culminating in the Luxembourg Agreements in 1952.
“Now approaching my 102nd year, I have cherished the goals for which the ICC stands throughout my entire adult life and I give thanks for the torch-bearers who will carry the dream of a more humane world under the rule of law forward, lest we perish from the folly of our failure to do so”, Ferencz said in 2020 at the height of Covid-19 pandemic.