Retreat From Nuremberg: The Leadership Requirement in the Crime of Aggression

21 Pages Posted: 13 Jan 2007 Last revised: 25 Oct 2007

See all articles by Kevin Jon Heller

Kevin Jon Heller

University of Copenhagen (Centre for Military Studies)

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The International Criminal Court's jurisdiction over the crime of aggression is contingent upon the Assembly of States Parties adopting a definition of the crime. To that end, the Special Working Group on the Crime of Aggression (SWG) has been considering a number of proposals for a possible definition. Although different in a number of respects, the proposals all agree on one point: that aggression is a leadership crime that can be committed only by persons who are in a position effectively to exercise control over or to direct the political or military action of a State.

No delegation has ever questioned the leadership requirement itself. There have been suggestions, however, that limiting the category of leader to individuals who can control or direct a State's political or military action might unnecessarily restrict the crime's scope. The SWG has consistently rejected those suggestions, insisting that the control or direct standard is consistent with - and required by - the jurisprudence of the International Military Tribunal (IMT), Nuremberg Military Tribunal (NMT), and International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE).

In fact, that jurisprudence tells a very different story. As this essay demonstrates, the IMT, NMT, and IMTFE not only assumed that the crime of aggression could be committed by two categories of individuals who could rarely if ever satisfy the control or direct requirement - private economic actors such as industrialists, and political or military officials in a State who are complicit in another State's act of aggression - they specifically rejected the control or direct requirement in favor of a much less restrictive shape or influence standard. The SWG's decision to adopt the control or direct requirement thus represents a significant retreat from the Nuremberg principles, not their codification.

Keywords: crime of aggression, international criminal court, ICC, Nuremberg, international military tribunal, IMT, nuremberg military tribunal, NMT, international military tribunal for the far east, IMTFE, industrialists, international criminal law, special working group, assembly of states parties

Suggested Citation

Heller, Kevin Jon, Retreat From Nuremberg: The Leadership Requirement in the Crime of Aggression. European Journal of International Law, Vol. 18, pp. 477-97, 2007, Available at SSRN:

Kevin Jon Heller (Contact Author)

University of Copenhagen (Centre for Military Studies) ( email )


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