‘Law not war’ – Inspiring international criminal law champion Benjamin Ferencz (1920-2023) will be sorely missed

Published 11 April 2023

@Hilko Visser - Ben Ferencz during his surprise visit at the Asser Institute in 2018. In the background Susana SáCouto, professional lecturer-in-residence and director of the War Crimes Research Office of Washington College of Law.

The last surviving Nuremberg prosecutor and international criminal law champion Benjamin Ferencz has died aged 103. Ferencz dedicated his life to the advance of international justice and stood at the cradle of the International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague. The always optimistic Ferencz inspired generations of students at the Asser Institute. 

In 2018, Benjamin Ferencz paid a surprise visit to the T.M.C. Asser Instituut, to kick off the Annual Summer Law Programme on International Criminal Law and International Legal & Comparative Approaches to Counter-Terrorism. It was Ferencz’ third visit to the Asser Institute and like the previous times, he inspired and moved a new young generation of international lawyers through his incredible life story and inexorable energy to make the world a more peaceful place.

During the Covid-pandemic, Ferencz resorted to doing virtual ‘meet and greets’ with students. Guided by his motto ‘Law not war’ and his three pieces of advice ‘Never give up, never give up, never give up!’, Ferencz always stressed the importance of moving away from nationalistic thinking, to prevent war from occurring and to fully believe in the message that ‘the impossible’ is in fact possible.

True highlights
Asser senior researcher Christophe Paulussen, who accompanied Ferencz to his visits to the institute, remembers the long line of participants, especially young students, who all wanted a selfie with their ‘big’ hero after Ferencz’ ‘pep talk’. Paulussen: “These visits were true highlights for the institute. In the same way as he inspired me, more than twenty years ago, to pursue a career in international criminal law, he continued to capture Asser audiences, young and old, with his incredible life story. I am truly blessed to have met him so many times. His passion, energy, wisdom and humour will be sorely missed.”

Ferencz became well-known because of his role in Nuremberg after World War II. He was an investigator of Nazi war crimes and would become chief prosecutor in the Einsatzgruppen trial. At the time, the American lawyer Ferencz was 27 years old, but had never seen a court room from the inside. In what would later be called the ‘biggest murder trial’ in history, twenty-two of the twenty-four Einsatzgruppen defendants were found guilty of crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes against humanity, war crimes and membership of organisations declared criminal by the International Military Tribunal of Nuremberg. Thirteen were sentenced to death for murdering over a million innocent men, women and children, and four would eventually be hanged, although Ferencz had not requested the death penalty.

Relentless efforts
With his work in Nuremberg, Benjamin Ferencz assisted in laying the foundation for the International Criminal Court (ICC). Ferencz: “Nuremberg taught me that creating a world of tolerance and compassion would be a long and arduous task. And I also learned that if we did not devote ourselves to developing effective world law, the same cruel mentality that made the Holocaust possible might one day destroy the entire human race.”

Through his relentless efforts (which he compared to a ‘rock being pushed up a hill which would roll down the hill the moment you let go’), the ICC would eventually become operational in 2002. At 91, Ferencz was asked to deliver some final remarks at the closing of the case against the ICC’s first accused: former Congolese rebel leader Thomas Lubanga Dyilo. Paulussen, smiling: “Ben always joked that the students he met did not have to worry about not being able to immediately find a job in the field of international law, as he himself was ‘in between jobs’ between the age of 27 (Nuremberg) and 91 (the ICC).”

Ferencz was also critical though: he was very disappointed that the United States did not become a state party to the Rome Statute of the ICC. Ferencz: “I have not forgotten that it took the United States forty years to ratify the Genocide Convention which we sponsored. But the world didn’t wait for the United States. If the United States comes on board sooner, and I hope it will, and I expect that it will, so much the better. If they don't, the world will move ahead and the United States will remain behind and it will lose the leadership role which it has enjoyed for so many years.”

Despite all the obstruction against the ICC, especially from his own country, Ferencz never gave up. He fully lived up to his one goal in life, which was replacing the ‘rule of force with the rule of law’ and he was the embodiment of one of his own signature pieces of advice: “Never give up, never give up, never give up.”


 Benjamin Ferencz and Christophe Paulussen in 2018.

Watch the video: The Century of Benjamin Ferencz: In Pursuit of International Criminal Justice (2017)
In 2017, a video was made of an SCL Lecture by Benjamin Ferencz, the only surviving Nuremberg war crimes prosecutor, who served as a combat soldier in World War Two and who has devoted his life to trying to deter illegal war by holding responsible leaders to account in national or international criminal courts.