UNITED NATIONS - Locked inside UN headquarters is a huge but largely unknown archive documenting 10,000 cases against accused World War II criminals. 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 Dr. 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.
The war crimes commission was shut down in 1948, and the following year, the UN 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 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 in Europe.
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 UN 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 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, 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."
Among the papers he discovered was a copy of a form from the "United Nations War Crimes Commission" outlining charges by Canada against a German Panzer brigade commander during 1943-44.
"This told me that there was something much, much bigger here that I wanted to know about, and that people needed to know about," he said.
Plesch said records indicate that alongside the Nuremberg trials, where prominent Nazis faced justice, the UN commission endorsed war crimes trials for some 10,000 individuals. It is known that 2,000 trials took place in 15 countries including the United States, he said.
Copies of some of the documents also exist in other archives around the world, but Plesch said the UN's collection "is the only central repository for the records of the trials from these 15 tribunals."
"The case law of all of these has been forgotten," he said.
"The Nuremberg trials only constituted one percent of the post-World War II prosecutions," he added. "A first look at the UN War Crimes Commission archive of the other 99 percent shows a gold mine of precedent and practice that can help hold modern-day war criminals to account. It must be made open without delay."
Plesch and two other researchers have asked UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to "take the necessary steps to ensure full public access to all the records" of the commission.
"Opening the archives will have significant public benefits," they said in a letter to Ban. "It will help the UN in its work by providing new information for Holocaust scholars and new information for states, intergovernmental organizations and the legal and academic communities concerned with international criminal law."
UN chief archivist Bridget Sisk said that, to her knowledge, this was the first request to change the rules of access in more than 20 years.
When he was Israel's UN ambassador, Benjamin Netanyahu appealed in 1986 for the archive to be opened to historians and the public. Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center said in 1987 that public access to the archive "would generate a significant amount of new information regarding the Holocaust."
After three months of intensive consultations with the 17 governments, the UN loosened the rules in November 1987 to allow access to researchers and historians if they get authorization from their government and the UN secretary-general, Sisk said.
But material with names of specific individuals not convicted of war crimes and witnesses was put off limits and the general public remained barred, she added.
"It would take new consultations by the 17 countries that were part of the commission to change the rules of access," Sisk said. "It would be for the secretary-general to entertain a request from one of the 17 members of the commission, as was done in 1987."
Concerns about putting every name in the archive into public view could remain an obstacle to opening it. Plesch said some countries could also be sensitive about documents that could indicate their reluctance to pursue war crimes trials.
While the archive is not a secret, few researchers know about it.
The United States, for example, authorized access for a researcher in 2002 but did not get another request until 2011, which it recently granted to one of Plesch's investigators.
The U.S. also recently approved a request from the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, which as a federal agency received wide access earlier this month.
Asked about making the archive public, U.S. deputy spokesman at the UN Payton Knopf said, "We are aware of requests to open the archives to the public and are reviewing the issue."
Paul Shapiro, director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the museum, said some of the material is already publicly available in other archives around the world. But the UN files do contain "a significant amount of unique material," he said.
Shapiro said one of the U.S. Holocaust museum's mandates is to collect archival material and it is seeking to open the War Crimes Commission files. He said the museum also made "a request through the State Department to the UN to make a copy of the microfilms available to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum."
"There's definitely a changed atmosphere and more open attitude relating to this kind of material since 1987," Shapiro said. "In the end, I believe the United Nations will do this."
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now