Benjamin Ferencz


The thematic of the Erasmus Prize 2009 was the International prosecution and judgment of war crimes and crimes against humanity. The prize was shared between two eminent jurists: Antonio Cassese and Benjamin Ferencz. Together these men – the prosecutor and the judge – form the embodiment of the endeavour to punish, prevent and eliminate international war crimes.

Benjamin Ferencz was born in 1920. He was an investigator of Nazi war crimes after World War II and the Chief Prosecutor for the United States Army at the Einsatzgruppen Trial, one of the twelve military trials held by the U.S. authorities at Nuremberg, Germany. As engaged citizen and on his personal initiative, only appreciated by private organisations, Mr Ferencz has continuously argued for recognition of international humanitarian criminal law. Mr Ferencz has made the prevention of aggression and war the main goal of his efforts and has been the driving force behind the establishment of the International Criminal Court. With untiring zeal Mr Ferencz has kept fighting for a more peaceful world where the rule of law prevails.



Article 2 of the Constitution of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation reads as follows: Within the context of the cultural traditions of Europe in general and the ideas of Erasmus in particular, the aim of the Foundation is to enhance the position of the humanities, social sciences and the arts. The emphasis is on tolerance, cultural pluralism and non-dogmatic, critical thinking. The Foundation endeavours to achieve this aim through the award of prizes and by other means. A money prize is awarded under the name of Erasmus Prize.

In accordance with this article, the Board of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation has decided to award the Erasmus Prize for the year 2009 to Antonio Cassese and Benjamin Ferencz.
The Prize is awarded to these two gentlemen on the following grounds:

- Both men have significantly contributed to the development of a universal system of law.

- Mr Ferencz has made the prevention of aggression and war the main goal of his efforts and has been the driving force behind the establishment of the International Criminal Court.

- With untiring zeal mr Ferencz keeps fighting for a more peaceful world where the rule of law prevails.

- Mr Cassese has played a pioneering role in creating the first courts for administering international justice and establishing their authority.

- In his function as judge, teacher, scholar and critic, mr Cassese has motivated a great number of students and collaborators and has played a crucial role in the recognition of international tribunals.

- Together these men - the prosecutor and the judge - form the embodiment of the endeavour to punish, prevent and eliminate international war crimes and crimes against humanity.


delivered by His Royal Highness the Prince of Orange

Ladies and gentlemen,

Is a peaceful community of states an attainable goal? Can we allow ourselves to dream of a Utopia?
Many will agree that it is desirable to strive for a less violent world, but few believe this ideal can be achieved in our lifetime. The concept of a peaceful community of nations was in fact suggested as long ago as 1795, when Immanuel Kant, in his Perpetual Peace: a Philosophical Sketch, outlined the idea of a league of nations that would control conflict and promote peace between states. Kant argues for the establishment of a peaceful world community in the hope that each state would respect its citizens and welcome foreign visitors as fellow rational beings. A union of free states would promote a peaceful society worldwide, overseen by the international community.
The development of international law resulted in the establishment of the League of Nations by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The League’s main purpose was to avoid any future world wars, but ultimately it proved incapable of preventing aggression by the Axis powers in the 1930s. At the end of the Second World War the United Nations replaced the League, inheriting a number of its agencies, and the dream was renewed. In the preamble to its Charter, the ‘peoples of the United Nations’ expressed their determination to combine their efforts to ‘maintain international peace and security’ and ‘to ensure, by the acceptance of principles and the institution of methods, that armed force shall not be used, save in the common interest’.
The emerging international legal order was increasingly based on the notion that perpetrators of heinous crimes should not go unpunished and that there can be no peace without justice. Indeed, the Tokyo and Nuremberg Tribunals after World War II were milestones in the development of international law, focusing on individual criminal responsibility, rather than on state responsibility. Both the Nuremberg and the Tokyo Tribunals applied and developed the concept of international criminal responsibility for crimes under international law, such as war crimes and crimes against humanity. The concept of individual criminal responsibility was taken further in international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions, the Genocide Convention and the UN Convention against Torture.
But after Nuremberg and Tokyo, it took more than forty years and the end of the Cold War for the international prosecution of the most serious international crimes to resume. Starting in the 1990s, several international, or partially international, courts and tribunals were set up by the United Nations or with UN support, such as the Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals, and the tribunals for ierra Leone, Lebanon and Cambodia. These tribunals were established to try international crimes in connection with specific situations. By contrast, the International Criminal Court, founded with the signing of the Rome Statute in 1998, which opened its doors in The Hague in July 2002, is the world’s first permanent court. It has potentially universal jurisdiction to try the most serious crimes of concern to the international community.
The importance of international tribunals is evident in the light of the international crimes committed time and again all over the world. But the daily reality of the international courts and tribunals is at times challenging. For instance, to implement their mandates they depend on the cooperation of States.
As peace and justice go hand in hand, the international community should step up its efforts, underscoring its commitment to international justice as a complement to national justice. The international criminal courts and tribunals should be able to function effectively as independent courts, dispensing justice in the interests of peace.

Ladies and gentlemen, the theme of the 2009 Erasmus Prize is 'Prosecuting and Judging International War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity'. It comes at a time when the Yugoslavia and Rwanda tribunals are moving towards completing their work, when several other courts and tribunals are dispensing international criminal justice and the world community is, more than ever, faced with the need to work together to solve global problems. In this context, we thought it was the right time to focus on the rule of law and the importance of international legal structures.
The prize has been awarded to two eminent legal experts, Antonio Cassese and Benjamin Ferencz. The Praemium Erasmianum Foundation recognises that this year’s two Erasmus Prize recipients are both key figures in the emerging system of universal criminal justice. And both have greatly contributed to it.

Mr Ferencz’s wartime experience has determined his life and the difficult goals he set himself. At the Einsatzgruppen trial at Nuremberg he was chief prosecutor, and brought to justice twenty-two Nazis who had perpetrated war crimes. Afterwards, he directed restitution programmes and assisted Nazi victims seeking compensation for their suffering and losses. He worked as counsel in negotiating reparations between West Germany, Israel and Jewish organisations. The most important part of his mission today is trying to prevent war. He sees war as the greatest evil of all, and has campaigned incessantly to eliminate it. One of his campaigns is to make aggression a crime within the meaning of the statute of the new International Criminal Court. Mr Ferencz has fought all his life to end impunity for the architects and perpetrators of large-scale atrocities and stressed the importance of individual responsibility. His long career spans the work done at Nuremberg and today’s efforts to develop a working, global system of international criminal law. That new institutions, including the International Criminal Court, have come into being is in no small part thanks to his efforts.

Antonio Cassese has played a vital role in developing relevant legal concepts and he helped to create the post-Nuremberg and Tokyo courts to administer international justice. He was a driving force behind the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and, as its first President, played a key role in establishing its authority. 
During his career Antonio Cassese has performed many roles: he has been a judge on the bench, he led the UN Commission of Inquiry on Darfur, and he has worked as a scholar, teacher, editor, commentator and author of innumerable books and articles. He has a rare talent for grasping the issues of international law. He combines great clarity and command of detail with a focus on practical application of the law. He has become known as a persistent force, who has motivated many of his co-workers and inspired a generation of students. He has acted as the conscience of the International Criminal Court by speaking out on the new and complex issues it faces. Judge Cassese is now once again based in The Hague as President of the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.

Gentlemen, the development of international criminal law is largely the result of your work. With unflagging zeal you have kept interest in universal justice alive and worked for the establishment and recognition of international tribunals. By honouring your efforts with the Erasmus Prize, we wish to express our deep appreciation for your perseverance in the fight for universal justice.
I should like to end my address with a striking quotation from the closing speech made by Benjamin Ferencz at Nuremberg, delivered at the trial where he was the chief prosecutor. Judge Antonio Cassese, as President of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, repeated these same words while reporting to the United Nations in 1997. These were powerful words, spoken about men who had committed great atrocities. Prosecutor Ferencz told the court that: ‘Life was their toy and death was their tool, and if these men be immune, then law has lost its meaning, and man must live in fear.’
Gentlemen, we hope that the power of your words and your arguments will remain a source of inspiration for all those who want to see large-scale atrocities punished, and the rule of force replaced with the rule of law.

May I ask you, Mr Cassese and Mr Ferencz, to please come forward to receive the insignia of the prize.

Acceptance Speech

photo John Thuring

Your Majesty, your Royal Highnesses, distinguished guests and friends,

You honor me by your presence and I am deeply moved. Allow me to convey my gratitude by sharing some personal experiences which may reflect the values of Erasmus, whose name we here commemorate.
My life was shaped in the crucible of wars. The First World War caused my family to flee to America. My destiny was shaped by the impact of the Second World War. Three goals became the focus of my life:
trying to bring perpetrators of war crimes to justice,
caring for survivors and
trying to prevent future wars.
As soon as my studies were completed, I enlisted in the United States army. In due course, I landed on the beaches of Normandy and participated in every major battle. As a war crimes investigator in the army of General Patton, I joined in the liberation of many Nazi concentration camps and witnessed indescribable horrors. After the war ended, I was discharged as a sergeant of infantry and awarded five battle stars for not being killed or wounded. Not all wounds are visible. I never speak of "winning" a war. I learned that the only victor in war is death.
The next phase of my life was helping to bring to justice some of those responsible for the aggressions and atrocities. The famous Nuremberg trial by the international military tribunal was followed by twelve subsequent trials. I was appointed chief prosecutor in what was probably the biggest murder trial in history. Twenty-two Nazi leaders of extermination squads called Einsatzgruppen were convicted of deliberately murdering over a million innocent men, women and children. I was then 27 years old and it was my first case.
The victims were slain because they did not share the race, faith or ideology of their executioners. I thought murdering thousands of children and all their relatives for such cruel reasons was a very terrible thing. I have never lost hat feeling. Punishing criminals must not obscure the need to care for their innocent victims. In 1948, I became the director of restitution programs to recover heirless properties for the benefit of needy survivors. That led to an additional assignment as counsel in negotiating a very sensitive 'reparations treaty' between West Germany, Israel and major Jewish charitable organizations. Millions of Nazi victims, regardless of persuasion, Jews and non-Jews alike, have benefited from the unprecedented indemnification laws which were negotiated in secret here in The Hague in Kasteel Oud Wassenaar in 1952.
Appreciation belongs primarily to German chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, who, as a devout catholic, proclaimed that amends had to be made for the terrible crimes committed in the name of the German people.
My files dealing with my war crimes and restitution have been donated to the US Holocaust Museum in Washington.  My books and lectures are available free on my website and the internet under a new United Nations audio-visual program. My Erasmus prize will all go for peace purposes.
Let me spend the few remaining minutes on what I consider the most important phase of my life and that is trying to prevent war-making itself. At Nuremberg war-making ceased to be regarded as a national right but was condemned as 'the supreme international crime'. There has never been a war without atrocities. Illegal war-making is the biggest atrocity of all.
The best way to protect the brave young people who serve in the military of all nations is to try to eliminate war. The UN charter prohibits the use of armed force except under very limited circumstances. It is high time for the powerful nations that control the Security Council to remember and respect their basic legal obligations to all nations.
It was made crystal clear at Nuremberg, and affirmed by the UN General Assembly, that law must apply equally to everyone. It is very dangerous when any person, or any nation, takes the law into its own hands. In a world seething with incredible destructive capabilities, there is no international dispute so overwhelming that it could justify the illegal use of armed force. Law is always better than war.
Many well-intentioned people believe that war can never be stopped since it is ordained as part of some eternal plan. From the unbelievable horrors of war that I have personally witnessed, I cannot believe the cruelties I have seen were divinely inspired. I share the view of Erasmus and religious leaders of many faiths who hold that we are all members of one human family and must learn to live in peace and dignity regardless of our race or creed. I recall the words of my supreme military commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower, when he became president of the United States: "The world no longer has a choice between force and law. If civilization is to survive, it must choose the rule of law."
It is difficult and takes time to change the heart and mind of persons with deeply entrenched and cherished ideals for which they are ready to kill and die.  But it can surely be done. The early United States constitution denied all women the right to vote or own property. White men felt they had a right to own black people as slaves; not long ago, it would have been unthinkable that the United States would elect a non-white president, but take note: The world has changed!
The world has changed and is ever-changing. National laws are being changed to conform to international obligations. There has been a gradual awakening of the human conscience. 
Whether aggression is punishable by an international court will be challenged at the International Criminal Court review conference next April. I believe we owe it to the future and to the memory of all who perished in wars, to go forward from Nuremberg and not backward. Even if only a small number of wars are deterred by the threat of punishment, it will surely be worthwhile.
The stubborn belief that the human mind is incapable of creating an improved social order is a self-defeating prophecy of doom. It ignores the potential of new technologies. Holland has become the international law capital of the world. But it is a work in progress, the values which inspired Erasmus to speak out against abuses by vested authority are still needed today. Fear and hatred that fuels violence can best be conquered by reason, tolerance, compassion and a willingness to compromise that should be taught everywhere at every level of learning, the glorification of war must be replaced by the glorification of peace.
I have tried to carry forward the main lesson of Nuremberg that aggression is the supreme international crime. I consider myself a realistic optimist; realist because I see the problems. Optimist because I see the progress. The international community is still in its formative stage and there has been more progress in the last half century than in all of human history. 
I am aware that I will not live to see the goal of abolishing all wars. But I will be content to know that perhaps I will have helped to move closer to that ideal. To young people I say: "Never give up. Try harder". Have the courage to speak up for what you know is right. You will find contentment in the knowledge that you have done your best to make this a more humane and peaceful world.
I thank you all for the honor and privilege of addressing you.

Antonio Cassese en Benjamin Ferencz

Antonio Cassese en Benjamin Ferencz kregen in 2009 gezamenlijk de Erasmusprijs.