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The authority of the International Military Tribunal to conduct these trials stemmed from the London Agreement of 8 August 1945. On that date, representatives from the United States, Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the provisional government of France signed an agreement that included a charter for an international military tribunal to conduct trials of major Axis war criminals whose offences had no particular geographic location. Later, 19 other nations accepted the provisions of this agreement.

Two key decisions of the Tribunal were the rejection of the argument that only a state, and not individuals, could be found guilty of war crimes; and the contention that crimes of international law are committed by individuals and that only by punishing individuals who commit such crimes can the provisions of international law be enforced.