Russia’s Role in Recognizing Crimes against Humanity


Armenian civilians are marched to a nearby prison in Mezireh by armed Ottoman soldiers. Kharpert, Ottoman Empire, April 1915.  Public Domain.

By Grant Collins

On Thursday, October 20th Dr. Peter Holquist, Associate Professor of History and Graduate Group Chair at the University of Pennsylvania, presented his lecture Crimes Against Humanity: The Russian Empire and the Entente Note of May 24, 1915 as the fourth speaker of the Havighurst Center’s Colloquia Series: Russia in War and Revolution. Dr. Holquist argued that the Russian Empire’s role in the creation of international law, specifically regarding “Crimes Against Humanity”, was instrumental in the formation of modern-day international law. Holquist discussed the pre-history of the Entente Note, the origins and drafting of the Note, and finally how the Note relates to the Nuremburg Trials of 1945.

Dr. Holquist began the 90-minute lecture with a slide displaying  the Entente Note of May 24, 1915. The Note, authored by a Russian diplomat, was a response by the nations of France, Russia, and the United Kingdom to the Ottoman Empire’s slaughter of Armenians. This note contained the first penal use of the phrase “crimes against humanity” to describe the Empire’s murdering of their own people.

Holquist proceeded to describe the history of international law that preceded the note—particularly the laws of war and the history of humanitarian intervention within Europe. He described how the so-called “Law of Christian Nations” and its various principles were adopted in attempts to create “international law”. Many of the initial nineteenth century attempts to create international law were focused on only combatants, such as the Geneva Convention of 1864.

Fedor Martens, an Imperial Russian Diplomat, helped to draft new international laws at the Brussels Conference in 1874. His provisions were based on the U.S. Lieber Code, which dictated how soldiers should conduct themselves during wartime. Martens’ Declaration was later ratified in 1899 and reinforced the notion of a “Law of Humanity”—specifically that when nations commit atrocities against their own people soldiers cannot claim that they were “following orders.” This logic, as Holquist noted, became the basis of the Nuremburg Trials following World War II in the prosecution of Nazi War Crimes.

Holquist then described the detailed history of the Entente Note. According to Holquist, “the Note was a response to the massacres of Armenians within the Ottoman Empire.” Holquist even wrote in a recent article that violence during World War I in the Russian borderlands, “took its most extreme form in the massacre of the region’s Armenian population,” (Shatterzone of Empires, 336). It is important to note that although large numbers of Armenians were being murdered, this note was drafted before the emergence of an outright genocide. Armenians within the Russian Empire began to lobby for an intervention—important Armenian leaders such as Catholicos (leader of the Armenian Apostolic Church) lived in the Russian Empire and used their influence to promote Russian intervention.

The initial draft of the note stated the phrase that the massacres went “against Christianity and Civilization,” which, according to Holquist was a, “total departure from the nineteenth century”. The United Kingdom and France both held colonies with large Muslim populations at the time, so the Russian Empire edited the note to include the phrase, “crimes against humanity” instead.

Such an intervention was viewed as a move that would support the war effort during World War I. Therefore, once the note was drafted, France immediately signed on. However, the United Kingdom delayed the signing of the note—one of their concerns was whether or not the note would be of any help. Ultimately, the United Kingdom agreed to sign on due to the perceived benefit this note would have on the war effort.

Following the end of World War I, at the Paris Peace Conference, the United Kingdom wanted to extend the precedent set from the Entente Note to other Crimes against Humanity. However, the United States believed this action would compromise their principles and therefore became the only nation opposed to all measures that would allow the international community to pursue Crimes against Humanity legally. In fact, following World War II the United States attempted to prosecute the atrocities committed during the Holocaust as War Crimes by deeming the systematic executions as “aggressive warfare.” The tradition of European nations intervening to prevent Crimes against Humanity was one that did not extend to the United States. However, this tradition, as well as the Entente Note, were invoked by the British representative Sir Hartley Shawcross during closing statements of the Nuremburg Trials in July, 1946.

The legacy of Russia’s role in International Law is a profound one, stretching from trade agreements made under Catherine the Great to the first use of the phrase “Laws of Humanity” to adding the phrase “Crimes against Humanity” in the Entente Note. The nineteenth century traditions of administrative law, as Holquist noted, allowed Russia to have a pivotal role in the formation of modern-day international law.

Grant Collins is a senior majoring in History.

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