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Research Project

War Crimes Trials Policy in the Far East: Judging Bacteriological Warfare at Khabarovsk (1949)
Valentyna Polunina (M.A.)

The contribution of the Soviet Union to the development of the legal framework of the war crimes trials after the Second World War and thus to a modern international law is nearly forgotten. The creation and outputs of the International Military Tribunals in Nuremberg and in Tokyo are generally seen by scholars as a victory of the Anglo-American legal doctrine. This is even more surprising as it was a Soviet scholar, Aron Trainin, who in 1943 published one of the first theoretical accounts on how to deal with war crimes. After rather unsuccessful experience at International Military Tribunals Moscow needed to reassert itself and found a good opportunity in the Khabarovsk Trial that took place in the Russian Far East in December 1949 and was ignored by scholars for almost 40 years. Set up as a Soviet riposte to the Tokyo Tribunal, the Trial in Khabarovsk was the only trial that was entirely dedicated to the Japanese wartime biological weapons program.
The project defines the role of Soviet war crimes trials policy in the era of international tribunals during the postwar period and the beginning of the Cold War. The project answers several main questions. First, why did the Soviet government decide to establish a military tribunal so late, at a time when the global wave of prosecuting wartime atrocities was mainly over and which aims this “belated” delivery of justice really pursued? Second, was the war crimes policy of the Soviet Union influenced by geo-political considerations and based on an intention to secure support of the Chinese People’s Republic in ideological competition with capitalistic states, especially with the U.S.A.? Furthermore, the legal proceedings of the Khabarovsk trial are analyzed, all the actors defined (especially the legal staff) with the emphasis on their possible influence on the formation of a global notion of justice and an alternative “anti-imperialistic” legal perception in the emerging bipolar world.
The conclusion of this research project is that, despite the differences between Soviet and Western law concepts, Soviet war crimes policy contributed to the development of the universal understanding of human rights law even if war crimes trials were widely seen in the Soviet Union as a useful political and propaganda tool in pursuing own geo-political goals.