Bebeto Matthews, Associated Press
UNITED NATIONS — Locked inside U.N. headquarters is a huge but largely unknown archive documenting 10,000 cases against accused World War II criminals, from Belgian charges against Adolf Hitler to the trial of a Japanese commander for inciting rape.
Leading British and American researchers are campaigning to make the files — hundreds of thousands of pages in 400 boxes — public for the first time in 60 years, arguing that they are not only historically valuable but also might unearth legal precedents that could help bring some of today's war criminals to justice.
The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington is also seeking to have the archive opened.
"It's outrageous that material which could help bring today's war criminals to justice and improve our understanding of the Holocaust is still secret," said British academic Dan Plesch, who is leading the push for access. "The whole archive should be online for scholars and historians."
The archive belonged to the United Nations War Crimes Commission, a body established in October 1943 by 17 allied nations to issue lists of alleged war criminals — ultimately involving approximately 37,000 individuals — examine the charges against them and try to assure their arrest and trial.
U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt first used the term "United Nations" in 1942 to refer to the countries pledged to the fight against Nazi Germany and its allies. The now 193-member United Nations officially came into existence in October 1945.
The war crimes commission was shut down in 1948, and the following year, the U.N. Secretariat drew up rules making the files available only to governments on a confidential basis. In 1987, limited access was granted only to researchers and historians.
Among the documents obtained by Plesch, and seen by The Associated Press, is a letter Belgium sent to the commission on March 15, 1945, filing unspecified charges against Hitler. That was two months before the end of the war.
Minutes of committee meetings in 1947 document cases in Greece and Poland involving rape and mass murder. Another document, signed by Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the Supreme Allied Commander in the Pacific, details the conviction of a Japanese commander for permitting or inciting his troops to rape a woman.
Those cases could have set a precedent for the prosecution of rape as a crime against humanity in the post-World War II era and reinforce it today, Plesch said.
But it wasn't until 1998 that the U.N. tribunal prosecuting leaders of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda convicted a former mayor of genocide and crimes against humanity, for the first time citing rape along with extermination, murder and torture. The International Criminal Court added rape as a crime against humanity in a 2001 landmark case against Bosnian Serb troops.
Duplicates of commission documents obtained by AP from the National Archives in Maryland include staff lists for the Nazi concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Buchenwald with the names, ranks and accusations against them.
Buchenwald camp leader Max Schobert, described as taking part in all mass and individual executions, was quoted as giving orders to bring him at least 600 Jewish death reports every day, and to take all university graduates and rabbis to the camp gate and bury them alive. He was found guilty of war crimes in 1947 and was hanged the following year.
At Buchenwald, a Gestapo official was described as "a particularly bloodthirsty torturer." Another officer who was in charge of gardens, was described as a "fanatical Jew baiter" who "made prisoners jump into the sewage pool" where on some days 80 or 90 prisoners suffocated.
Plesch, director of the Center for International Studies and Diplomacy at the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies, stumbled on the archive while researching the beginnings of the United Nations for his book, "America, Hitler and the UN."