Leah Owen & Dan Plesch

Leah Owen is a DPhil student at the University of Oxford, studying genocidal dehumanisation and mobilisation. Her other research interests include the study and use of archives, as well as post-conflict criminal justice initiatives.

Dan Plesch is the author of 'Human Rights After Hitler'. He is Director and Senior Associate Professor at the Centre for International Studies and Diplomacy, SOAS University of London; and Scholar in Residence at the School of International Service at American University. 


'Geographies of accountability: the United Nations War Crimes Commission archives and wartime complementarity'

Abstract of presentation for Holocaust Studies in the Digital Age. What’s New? on 2 July 2019

This presentation will begin with a brief introduction to the United Nations War Crimes Commission, the 1943-1948 international diplomatic organisation  established by 16 Allied states to provide support for domestic prosecutions of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Unlike the more famous (but far less extensive) Nuremberg trial processes, the Commission provided international support for trials in local jurisdictions, assisting and preparing over 2,000 trials resulting in approximately 10,000 convictions of mid- and low-level perpetrators. The Commission broke new ground in addressing acts today recognisable as genocide and crimes against humanity, and attempted to deliver on President Roosevelt’s 1942 promise that ‘the time will come when [Holocaust perpetrators] shall have to stand in courts of law in the very countries which they are now oppressing and answer for their acts.’

These largely ignored archives are particularly useful to Holocaust researchers, historians and educators, and modern-day practitioners and policymakers looking to pursue complementarity in war crimes prosecutions today. Growing digitisation and visualisation can bring these archives to life and prominence as educational and research resources, but their use is not without difficulties and risks.

To demonstrate this, we will provide a worked example of mapping war crimes indictments in the Netherlands, examining the process by which charges can be indexed, systematised, and graphically mapped, and examining the way that this accessibility allows easier access to researchers and a greater sense of ‘ownership’ of history among archive users. In doing so, we will examine how specific aspects of the UNWCC’s history lent themselves to such an endeavour, and generalising from these to broader observations about the role of different types of standardisation and data formatting lend themselves to this kind of broader explication – a lesson with relevance both for Holocaust studies and contemporary research on atrocities and post-conflict research.

Having done so, we will then identify some of the issues with using visualisations as research and learning tools. As examples of this, we will examine the Yugoslav cases as an example of how lack of standardisation in the source data can provide a potentially misleading and obfuscatory visualisation, and the Dutch cases as an example of how a visualisation can do more to highlight what is missing; due to the early closure of the UNWCC, much of the followup documentation of prosecution is missing, meaning that a visualisation is useful in highlighting what information is missing, as much as what is present.

Based on our experience working with the archive, we thus offer a cautiously optimistic outlook. New approaches to data handling, collation, and presentation can be immeasurably helpful in making old archives more useful research and educational tools, but often they represent useful intermediate products of research that point the way to further research, rather than research outputs in themselves. While they may be striking, they are not always useful alone.

We are interested in establishing research partnerships with Holocaust scholars to make the best use of this new type of legally certified contemporary evidence of Holocaust and other Axis crimes.

Leah Owen
University of Oxford

Dan Plesch
University of London