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Replacing the Rule of Force with the Rule of Law

Benjamin B. Ferencz speaks to a packed house during his first visit to Brandeis University.

Benjamin B. Ferencz speaks to a packed house during his first visit to Brandeis University.

November 7, 2014

In 1945 Benjamin B. Ferencz, then only 27 years old, was appointed Chief Prosecutor for the United States in the Einsatzgruppen Case, a part of the post-World War II Nuremberg War Crimes Trials. It became what the Associated Press called “the biggest murder trial in history.” It was his first case.

Twenty-two defendants were charged with murdering over a million people. All of the defendants were convicted, and 13 were sentenced to death. The verdict was hailed as a great success for the prosecution.

Ferencz’s primary objective had been to establish a legal precedent that would encourage a more humane and secure world in the future. Following that experience he dedicated his life to advocating steps to replace the “rule of force with the rule of law.” He is a strong supporter of the International Criminal Court.

During a visit to Brandeis in November hosted by the Ethics Center, Ferencz shared some of what he has come to believe the world now needs.

“We’ve got to change the way people think because we’ve all been raised to glorify war making,” he told the crowd of students and faculty members. “We have glorified killing. We have glorified nationalism. We have glorified ‘God bless our country and to hell with the rest of the world.’ That doesn’t fly anymore. The world is shrinking.”

Ferencz explained that his philosophy is based on the concept of “planethood” – the concept for which his foundation is named: “We are all inhabitants of one small planet and we must learn to live on this planet together in peace and human dignity regardless of our race or creed. ...No longer thinking in terms of ‘neighborhood’ or ‘nationhood,’ but ‘planethood.’”

His visit helped to kick off an oral history initiative being undertaken by the Ethics Center’s Programs in International Justice and Society. The Center is conducting a series of oral history interviews with significant figures, including Ferencz, who have been deeply involved with the still relatively new field of international criminal justice, in particular the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Established by the United Nations in 1993 and 1995 respectively, they are the first international criminal tribunals set up in the wake of Nuremberg.

Benjamin Ferencz speaking with students at Brandeis
Benjamin B. Ferencz speaks with Brandeis University students following his talk. Pictured left to right: Sneha Walia '15, Ally Eller '15, Nathan Goldwag '16, Bethany Adam '15.


The work of the ICTY and the ICTR is winding down, and the Ethics Center is seeking to capture a rich, textured history of these important institutions by interviewing judges, prosecutors, defense counsel, administrators, and commentators on international criminal law.

“The influence of the ‘UN Ad-Hoc Tribunals’ cannot be overestimated,” says David P. Briand, Oral History Project Manager at the Ethics Center. “They were the testing ground for contemporary international criminal justice, and led to the creation of other war crimes tribunals – the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia – and, very significantly, the permanent International Criminal Court.”

The archive of oral history interviews being produced by the Ethics Center will be accessible to scholars, researchers and the general public through Brandeis University Library’s Special Collections.

More about Benjamin B. Ferencz, including free resources on his work: