Thanos The Mad Titan is the most dangerous environmentalist war criminal in pop culture. In the comics, Thanos was a literal lover of Death. In Avengers Infinity War, Thanos is more complex. He wants to kill half of all life in the universe in order to sustain life. In Thanos’ twisted reality, eliminating half of all living beings would preserve natural resources allowing life to flourish. In Thanos’ mind, he is the hero.
The slight problem with that fanatical belief? Thanos committed mass genocide to achieve his dream of universal sustainability.
Prosecuting Thanos for the extermination of half of all life at the snap of his figures would cause multiple challenges. No one has been prosecuted for any mass killing of that magnitude before. The closest would be the war crimes trials of the Nazis after World War II. Even then, it was not one person who snapped his fingers to commit mass murder in the blink of an eye.
The Allies after World War II agreed to the procedural rules for prosecuting Axis members for war crimes in the London Charter. 59 Stat. 1544. Article Six of the London Charter defined the jurisdiction of the Nuremberg war crimes trials as follows:
(a) Crimes against peace: namely, planning, preparation, initiation or waging of a war of aggression, or a war in violation of international treaties, agreements or assurances, or participation in a common plan or conspiracy for the accomplishment of any of the foregoing;
(b) War crimes: namely, violations of the laws or customs of war. Such violations shall include, but not be limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave labor or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity;
(c) Crimes against humanity: namely, murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population, before or during the war; or persecutions on political, racial or religious grounds in execution of or in connection with any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated.
There was no defense for war crimes. The trials were heard by a panel of four judges who each had an alternate. The law applied to the trials were either under international law or the laws of war. See, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum Co. 621 F.3d 111, 132-134 (2d Cir. 2010) for an overview of the London Charter.
The remaining living half of the universe all rightfully would want to bring Thanos to justice. It is not known how many alien civilizations there are in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but literally every civilization would have a claim against Thanos for his Mass Extinction Attack (MEA). One option for prosecution Thanos is for “allied” civilizations that work together for his capture to create their own version of the London Charter, whether it is the Hala Charter, the Xandar Conference, or Tarnax II Declaration.
The “Titan Tribunal” would need to have a representative number of judges for the trial of Thanos, but not to the point that a trial would become unmanageable. One option is to look to the major powers of the universe to each send a judge for the proceedings. There would need to be a limit in order to have judicial efficiency, whether the panel has four judges, nine, or ideally not more than twelve. The judicial representatives would elect a “Chief Justice” for case management and evidentiary rulings during testimony. The judges would serve as finders or fact and law in reaching a verdict on the charges against Thanos.
Wakanda should represent Earth in any such proceedings, as Wakanda was location for the battle with Thanos. While the entire population of Earth suffered 50% fatalities, Wakanda has a strong jurisdictional claim as the invaded nation by an alien army. The United States could provide an alternate judge, as New York was invaded once and assaulted before the Battle of Wakanda.
Charging Thanos for Genocide
Genocide is defined (at least in the United States) when someone, “whether in time of peace or in time of war and with the specific intent to destroy, in whole or in substantial part, a national, ethnic, racial, or religious group as such, kills members of that group.” 18 U.S.C. § 1091(a)(1).
The punishment for having caused death is either death OR imprisonment for life and a fine of not more than $ 1,000,000, or both. 18 U.S.C. § 1091(b).
Every allied civilization should be able to agree to a universal charge of genocide against Thanos. The Mad Titan declared war on life for his reason to kill half of all life in the universe. Thanos had the specific intent to destroy half of ALL national, ethnic, racial, and religious groups in the universe. There usually is a form of discrimination in cases of genocide, with one group seeking the destruction of others. Thanos is unique in that he played God in deciding to “thin the herd” of every life form in creation.
The crime of genocide requires the intentional killing of a “substantial part” of a national group (in this case, a species). This was evident where Thanos had the Zen-Whoberis population divided into two groups and one of them slaughtered. 50% of a population would be a “substantial part” for prosecuting Thanos for genocide.
Prosecutors could prove a case of genocide against Thanos. The act of reducing half of all life to ash should be universally agreed to by every civilization in the galaxy. While there are likely divergent legal systems across the universe, this is one charge all wronged civilizations can agree to for prosecution.
Crimes Against Peace
Thanos could also be charged with crimes against peace. Thanos and his cult followers planned and initiated a war of aggression against life. This included, but was not limited to, the murder of the half of the Zen-Whoberis population; attack on Luphom; attempted invasion of Earth in the Battle of New York; assault on Xandar to recover an Infinity Stone; massacre of Asgardian refugees; attack on New York to kidnap Dr. Stephen Strange for the Time Stone; and invasion of Wakanda to extract the Mind Stone from the Vision.
All of these actions were in furtherance of Thanos’ plan to exterminate half of all life in the universe. Prosecutors could argue Thanos had a universal war of aggression, which all of his actions had the end game to commit a Mass Extinction Attack.
Terrorism vs War
It is worth noting that Thanos acted independently of any nation-state. His own home world was lost to an environmental disaster. Those who followed Thanos could be described somewhere between a political and religious movement determined to exterminate half the life in the universe. While the “children” of Thanos followed his orders, this was more in line with executing his will, opposed to carrying out a national policy. This makes them sound more like terrorists and less like uniformed members of a military on behalf of a country. This could play a role in prosecuting Thanos and his followers as terrorists or as war criminals.
Judgment at Titan
The crimes of Thanos transcend crimes against humanity into crimes against life. Thanos did everything from kidnap children after murdering their parents to universal genocide. Prosecuting him would be extremely complex, but that is not a reason to withdraw from the rule of law. In Justice Robert Jackson’s opening statement for the war crimes trial of Nazi leaders, Jackson stated the following on the unprecedented nature of the proceedings:
Civilization asks whether law is so laggard as to be utterly helpless to deal with crimes of this magnitude by criminals of this order of importance. It does not expect that you can make war impossible. It does expect that your juridical action will put the forces of international law, its precepts, its prohibitions and, most of all, its sanctions, on the side of peace, so that men and women of good will, in all countries, may have “leave to live by no man’s leave, underneath the law.”
The Avengers have much to avenge after the events of Infinity War. However, a mission to kill Thanos for his crimes would be purely for revenge and not about justice. Holding Thanos accountable for his Mass Extinction Attack with a trial, to expose his twisted beliefs, and convict him for genocide, would send a message to [fictional] genocidal extremists that the rule of law protects life from those who would burn it to ashes.