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Let’s F*ck up Some Commas

You’ve heard of the sandwich that started World War One, now get ready for:

The Semicolon Which Almost Prevented Responsibility for Genocide

What is a semicolon? As a punctuation mark, it is rarely used and seems irrelevant to the way we convey ourselves. I have no idea what rules apply to semicolons. If I include them, they serve as rhetorical devices and are used with uncertainty as to whether they are being used correctly. I would dare to say that for most of us the semicolon is something which we don’t spend a lot of time thinking about and rarely use with certainty (congratulations if you’re the exception). However, in 1945 a semicolon is what almost prevented the International Military Tribunal (IMT) from convicting Nazi officers for Genocidal acts if these acts were committed before the war.


The whole ordeal began with a simple inconsistency in translations: the Russian translation included a comma between the words ‘war’ and ‘or’ in Article 6 paragraph (c) of the IMT charter, while the French and English translations included a semicolon.

English: “CRIMES AGAINST HUMANITY: namely, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war; or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in the execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.”

This semicolon separated the jurisdiction for Crimes Against Humanity (which would fall under the IMT regardless of when they are committed) from the jurisdictional requirements regarding Genocidal acts. Instead of having the two segments of the sentence connected, the semicolon divided the parts and consequently distinguished the applicable rules. For jurisdiction in Genocidal matters, a nexus to armed conflict would be required. Without the immediate connection to the war, the IMT would not able to convict the perpetrators of these heinous acts.

While the most frequent and atrocious of the genocidal acts perpetrated by the Nazis were committed before the start of World War Two, these would no longer be covered by the jurisdiction of the IMT.

Why was this a problem?

In 1945 Genocide was still a new concept, in fact, Lemkin had only just published the book which is credited with the creation of the term in 1943. That being said, he had already made his intentions of designating this ‘crime of all crimes’ apparent in 1933. The goal was to convict individuals and surpass impunity for government officials when the persecution of peoples was at issue.

In the IMT charter, the word genocide was not explicitly mentioned. However, at this point, the belief that this crime, which offended the essence of humanity irrespective of national borders, must be subject to consequences was well established. The goal of the IMT was to convict those responsible and to provide a complete historical record. Without the inclusion of political, racial and religious persecution before the war, the responsibility and the public record of what happened would be largely incomplete.

This is especially true because the IMT only tried high ranking officers who would have otherwise escaped accountability for their acts of Genocide. It was an absolute necessity for the IMT to provide a public record of the atrocities while also delivering some form of justice. 

How was this Solved?

This story does have a (relatively) happy ending. In a protocol to the IMT charter, the signatories agreed that the comma in the Russian translation would be applied to both the French and English versions. Therefore, the IMT was able to convict seven individuals for all of their crimes both before and during the war.

The IMT, while not devoid of controversies, is credited as being one of the first successful international tribunals and the birthplace of our current international criminal system. It set the precedent for further convictions, tribunals, and trials which are both related to the Holocaust directly and to other instances of crimes that are perpetrated against humanity as a whole. With the semicolon in place and the comma left behind, the weight of the IMT would not have been nearly as significant as it is today.

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