Ben Ferencz: Upbeat Man From a Deadbeat Country

By Shirley Farlinger | 1989-12-01 12:00:00

International Lawyer Ben Ferencz gave a lecture in Toronto this fall. To most Canadian activists he is best known for his concise, lively little blue paperback, Planethood, which is prompting people to think more about the governance of this globe.

Ferencz is hopeful. "More progress has been made in international law," he writes, "in the past forty years than in the previous thousands." He gives credit to pirates for prompting the first development of international law. Because they threatened commerce, separate nations cooperated to outlaw and punish them. Another step toward international law was Czar Nicholas II's call in 1899 for the first international peace conference at the Hague. Developments are coming faster now, Ferencz points out. The international laws are being codified, and the Law of the Sea is an exceptional step forward. The seabed in four-fifths of the planet will be treated as a commons. Antarctica, part of the Indian Ocean, and outer space are now regulated by international law. There are new courts, such as the Strasbourg Court of Human Rights, where citizens can sue their government for not complying with a law. Three basic requirements - rules, courts, and enforcement - are gradually being fulfilled.

"We only have the United Nations to deal with world problems," Ferenz told his Toronto audience. "It has peacekeeping forces with armbands, not arms. And it has 100 agencies for dealing with things like health, atomic material, debt, and disease.

"A U.S. commission is working on a charter revision. The U.S. is the biggest deadbeat in the U.N. They owe $530 million. Instead of 134 stealth bombers, I tell them to build 133 and tell the Russians there are 134. They'll never notice."

Ferencz's personal tale is quite a story. He was born in Transylvania in 1920, but his parents emigrated to the U.S. and settled in Hell's Kitchen, the poorest district of New York. Ben was too short for sports, so he studied hard and was admitted to Harvard Law School, where he earned money by doing research for his professor, Roscoe Pound. The research was for a book on war crimes. It was to shape his life.

In 1943 he joined up and fought in Europe under Patton. As the war drew to a close, he was asked to help gather evidence for the war crimes trial. He uncovered mass graves and entered concentration camps with the crematoria still burning. "I am still suffering the effects," he says.

After he was discharged from the Army, he joined the prosecutors already working on the trial of Goering and other Nazis. His first case was the biggest murder trial in history, and he won it. "This set a legal precedent for crimes against humanity which is as valid for the genocide contemplated by the use of nuclear weapons today," he says.

He maintains that the sovereign state is obsolete; nothing works anymore on a national basis. He is not alone in this view. In September, Foreign Minister Shevardnadze spoke in the United Nations about the necessity of providing security to all nations, not through weapons but with economic and ecological help, using the U.N. and international law. "However," Ferencz says, "no country can disarm now because the laws are not in place. Lawyers must wake up and build the legal system."

His wife shares his zeal. He recently had to dissuade her from climbing over a fence in Florida and getting arrested with 85-year-old Dr. Spock. He urged her not to get arrested because, for all his knowledge, there is nothing he can do to help her. He has defended peace protesters, but never succeeds because international law cannot be applied in the courts. The Nuremburg principles are not in the penal code.

Ferencz exhorts his audience: "Speak up! Do whatever you can. Shout. Scream. Sing peace songs. Don't take it anymore."

Ms. Farlinger is an editor of PEACE.

Peace Magazine Dec 1989-Jan 1990

Peace Magazine Dec 1989-Jan 1990, page 7. Some rights reserved.

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