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East West Street

Updated: May 21




I had a mixed reaction yesterday to the pictures of the convicted war criminal, 21-year-old, Vadim Shishimarin. The beardless young man with a shaved head had, it seems, been commander of a tank division which had come under attack a few days after the invasion began. As they made their getaway, he and his colleagues met Oleksandr Shelipov, a 62-year old cyclist speaking on his phone. They suspected him of sharing their whereabouts with the Ukrainian army. They shot him in the head. Shishimarin pleaded guilty to shooting the unarmed civilian. This young man who looks like little more than a boy faces life in jail.


Like Kateryna, the wife of the murdered man, I felt some pity for Shishimarin. But my predominant emotion was anger that the powerful creators of the system of which he is a product seem untouchable. Of course, he must be punished as a brutal murderer – but to me, he had ‘victim’ written all over him – victim of a brutal regime with a brutal dictator engaged in a violent invasion. How much freedom or responsibility did he really have?


Books about the development of legal concepts are rarely on my reading list! But I've been fascinated by an award-winning best seller which explores the question of individual and corporate freedom and responsibility in an account of the Nuremberg war trials at the end of the Second World War. Its author is Philippe Sands, Professor of Laws and Director of the Centre on International Courts and Tribunals at University College London.


When Sands received an invitation to deliver a lecture in his home town of Lviv, Ukraine, which had been under eight national jurisidictions between 1914-45, he began a journey on the trail of his family's secret history. Sands’ book, East West Street reads like a combination of a memoir, and a thriller. The unearthing of hidden family stories combines with some deep legal and philosophical explorations. Alongside the Nuremberg prosecutors, Lauterpacht and Lemkin, Sands researched and recounted the life and 24 volume diaries of the Nazi governor of Poland, Hans Frank, whom the Nuremberg court held responsible for the murder of thousands of Jews in and around Lviv.


The final section of the book explores sentencing for contribution to the Nazi project of a score of men from Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi party philosopher through Goring, one of the primary architects of the Nazi Police State, and Hess, Hitler’s propagandist and private secretary plus a score of others who made their contributions at various levels of the Nazi operation.


Sands’ account shows how much of the legal discussion around the trial was devoted to deciding whether the defendants could plead ‘collective responsibility’ as functionaries of the state rather than personal or individual moral responsibility. In the end, it was agreed that ‘crimes were committed by men, not abstract entities’ and the men were individually sentenced. Individual morality was celebrated even for those living under a totalitarian regime. Individuals, the Nuremberg judges concluded in a landmark ruling, have international duties that ‘transcend the national obligations of obedience imposed by the individual state’.


I was delighted to read recently that with the support of former UK Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and many other leading thinkers, Sands is now working on the setting up a special tribunal to define and deal with new war crimes in Ukraine. But somehow, I doubt whether Vladimir Putin or any of his cronies believe in individual moral responsibility. And I wonder about Shishimarin. I wonder how much opportunity he had in his short life to develop an understanding of personal moral obligations or how much freedom he had to think about the possibility of obedience to any power other than the Russian state. It’s a freedom to which we in the West still at least give lip service. We must do everything we can to cherish it!


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