Focus: International Legal Histories – A Look Back to the Twentieth Century

When Institutional Design Is Flawed: Problems of Cooperation at the United Nations War Crimes Commission, 1943–1948


The United Nations War Crimes Commission (UNWCC) (1943–1948) was the principal multilateral institution set up by the Allied powers to consider evidence of war crimes committed by the enemy in World War II. From the outset, the UNWCC’s main purpose was to achieve post-war ‘preparedness’ in relation to war crimes, so that the delays and mistakes made in trying suspected German war criminals after World War I were not repeated. Although the UNWCC was originally conceptualized as a fact-finding body, it did not have its own investigatory arm or the resources to undertake investigations. Rather, the evidence of war crimes was meant to be gathered by each member nation and then submitted to the UNWCC for consideration. The limited flow of information to the UNWCC in 1943–1944, however, made it clear that this self-reporting system was flawed, putting at risk the goal of preparedness. This article first examines how problems of national level UNWCC collaboration were recognized and the concerns about information flow that were articulated. Second, it examines the unsuccessful proposal put forward by the Australian representative, Lord Wright of Durley, to modify the institutional design of the UNWCC to incorporate an investigatory function. While the UNWCC achieved far too much in its short lifespan to be considered a failed organization, the flaws in its institutional design created collaboration problems during the war and also ensured that it was too easily sidelined by the Allied governments after the war.