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Yamashita v. Styer

Court Supreme Court, United States
Case number 327 U.S. 1; 66 S. 340
Decision title Judgment
Decision date 4 February 1946
  • Tomoyuki Yamashita
  • Lieutenant General Wilhelm D. Styer, Commanding General of the United States Army Forces, Western Pacific
Other names
  • In re Yamashita
Categories War crimes
Keywords command responsibility, Japan, military commission, Philippines, United States, war crimes, World War II
Other countries involved
  • Philippines
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At the end of the Second World War, Tomoyuki Yamashita was a Commander in the Japanese Army serving in the Philippines. His troops were allegedly responsible for killing, torturing and raping thousands of civilians.

On 3 September 1945, Yamashita surrendered to the United States army. A US military commission tried him for violations of the laws of war. Yamashita was charged with having failed to perform his duties as an army commander to control the operations of his troops, thus “permitting them to commit” atrocities. He was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging.

Yamashita appealed at the US Supreme Court, because the military commission had lacked many procedural and evidential protections. The Supreme Court denied this appeal. The Supreme Court ruled that even if Yamashita did not know about the crimes committed by his subordinates, because of his position as a superior, he should have known. Yamashita was executed on 23 February 1946.

The outcome of this case has been much debated and criticised, because of the claimed lack of evidence and the ‘should have known’ criteria as described by the Supreme Court. 

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Procedural history

On 3 September 1945, the accused surrendered to the United States Army and became a prisoner of war. The accused was a former Commanding General of the Fourteenth Army Group of the Imperial Japanese Army in the Philippines.

A military commission was appointed by General Styer in order to try the accused for a violation of the laws of war.

On 8 October 1945, the accused was held for trial before a military commission of five Army officers appointed by order of General Styer. The accused had allegedly failed in his duty as an army commander to control the operations of his troops, permitting them to commit specified atrocities against the civilian population and prisoners of war. Yamashita was found guilty and sentenced to death by hanging on 7 December 1945.

Yamashita addressed the Supreme Court of the Philippines for a writ of habeas corpus, but this was denied on jurisdictional grounds.

He then lastly addressed the United States Supreme Court a petition for habeas corpus, which is the current decision.

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Related developments

Yamashita was executed on 23 February 1946.

 The Yamashita case set a precedent for command responsibility:

“The modern legal standard governing the doctrine of command responsibility in the United States rests upon the precedent established by the United States Supreme Court in the case of General Tomoyuki Yamashita. The Court's holding has become known as the "Yamashita Standard" (A.E. Mahle, 'The Yamashita Standard', PBS).

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Legally relevant facts

The petition for habeas corpus by the accused alleged that the detention of the petitioner for the purpose of the trial was unlawful for several reasons:

  • The military commission was not lawfully created;
  • The charge against the petitioner fails to charge him with a violation of the laws of war;
  • The commission was without authority and jurisdiction to try and convict petitioner.
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Core legal questions

  • Was the military commission unlawfully established and without jurisdiction?
  • Could the commission lawfully try Yamashita after hostilities had ceased for his failure to stop his subordinates from committing violations of the law of war?

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Specific legal rules and provisions

  • Articles 60 and 63 of the 1929 Geneva Convention relative to the Treatment of Prisoners of War.
  • Articles 8, 15, 25 and 38 of the Articles of War.
  • Articles 1, 8, 9 and 10 of the United States Constitution.

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Court's holding and analysis

The Supreme Court disagrees that the military commission unlawfully created and without jurisdiction and denies the writ. The Court held that the commission was not only created by a commander competent to appoint it, but his order conformed to the established policy of the government and was in complete conformity with the Articles of War.

Moreover, there was authority to convene the commission, even after hostilities had ended, to try violations of the law of war that were committed before the war’s cessation, at least until peace was officially recognized by treaty or proclamation.

Further, the accused was not entitled to any of the evidentiary and procedural protections afforded by the Geneva Convention, part 3, chapter 3, V, title III, because that applied only to persons subjected to judicial proceedings for offenses committed while prisoners of war.

The Court held that the Articles of War are not applicable to the trial of an enemy combatant by a military commission; therefore the military commission did not violate any Acts of Congress.

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Further analysis

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Instruments cited

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Additional materials

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Social media links

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