Fact check: Mandatory mask wearing is not a ‘war crime’ that violates the Nuremberg Code

Social media users have been sharing posts which claim that the mask mandates are a direct violation of the Nuremberg Code, a set of research ethics principles for human experimentation designed after the Second World War. This claim is false: the Nuremberg Code relates specifically to medical experiments on humans and does not apply to mask-wearing, which is a public health intervention.

Reuters Fact Check. REUTERS

“Your Governments are in direct violation of the Nuremberg Code!” and “Mandatory masks are a direct violation of The Nuremberg Code,” say the posts (here  ,  here).

The screenshots claim to contain Article 6, Sections 1 and 3 of the Nuremberg code, and highlight the following sentence: “Leaders should be aware that mandating masks on the citizens of a nation and preventing their access to food, healthcare, transport or education if they don’t comply, is a war crime.”

However, they are not from the Nuremberg Code.

The 1947 Nuremberg Code refers to the ten principles listed in the “Permissible Medical Experiments” section of volume II of the Trials of War Criminals Before the Nuremberg Military Tribunals seen here here and here here . The sixth of these principles, the closest thing to a possible Article 6, reads: “The degree of risk to be taken should never exceed that determined by the humanitarian importance of the problem to be solved by the experiment.” There are no subsections and no references to masks.

The Nuremberg Code requires that human participants in experiments give informed consent and was adopted as part of the 1949 Geneva Conventions (here), so breaking the code would constitute a war crime (here).

However, this code is about the rights of subjects in medical research and experiments. Experts told Reuters that mask-wearing falls under public health interventions, not medical research or medical interventions.

The extracts in the social media posts appear to be partly copied from the 2005 UNESCO Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights, seen here  . This declaration describes itself as a document “addressed to States” designed to provide a “universal framework of principles and procedures to guide States in the formulation of their legislation and policies.” There is no mention that violating the declaration would be considered a “war crime” as the posts claim.

The parts of the text in the social media posts that refer to masks are not included in the Nuremberg Code or UNESCO Declaration and Reuters could not find this text in any codes or documentation.

The posts incorrectly copied section three of Article 6 of the UNESCO Declaration, leaving out context that shows it is talking about medical research contexts (with no mention of masks). The full section reads, “In appropriate cases of research carried out on a group of persons or a community, additional agreement of the legal representatives of the group or community concerned may be sought. In no case should a collective community agreement or the consent of a community leader or other authority substitute for an individual’s informed consent.” The first sentence is left out of the social media posts.

The Article 6, Section 1 cited in the social media posts appears to have been copied from section one of article 6 of the UNESCO Declaration. Both begin by saying: “Any preventive, diagnostic and therapeutic medical intervention is only to be carried out with the prior, free and informed consent of the person concerned, based on adequate information.”

Dr Robert D. Truog, MD, Frances Glessner Lee Professor of Medical Ethics, Anaesthesiology & Pediatrics and Director of the Center for Bioethics at Harvard Medical School (here), explained to Reuters via email that mask mandates are not medical interventions but public health interventions.

“The claims that policies mandating masks could be seen as a violation of either the Nuremberg Code or the UNESCO Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights are absolutely false,” he said. “These policies are neither medical research not medical interventions. They are public health interventions. Just like laws that prohibit smoking on planes or in restaurants, these policies are intended to protect innocent individuals from being exposed to potentially harmful toxins or viruses that could be spread by others.”

Dr Lawrence Gostin, University Professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC, specializing in Global Health Law (here), also confirmed to Reuters via email that medical research referred to in the Nuremberg Code and UNESCO Declaration does not include mask wearing, which is a prevention measured allowed by the International Health Regulations.

“The claim is absurd,” he said. “Those international instruments apply to human research not to sound public health powers designed to [protect] the public. In fact, the International Health Regulations explicitly allow states to implement disease prevention measures like mask mandates.”  Details of the International Health Regulations can be seen  here  .  

Gostin also said that informed consent that is indeed required by bioethics principles would not apply anyway if the individual poses a risk to others. In the case of mask wearing, he said non-mask-wearing individuals would be considered a risk to others by contributing to the spread of COVID-19.

Mask mandates in the U.S. differ among states. They usually stipulate that people cannot go out in public or out to specific locations, such as shared transportation (i.e. planes, trains) and private businesses (i.e. stores, hairdressers), without wearing a mask and allow exemptions for medical reasons or young children.

An American Association of Retired Persons tally of the U.S. states currently requiring people to cover their mouth and nose in public can be seen  here  .  The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued an order on Jan. 29 requiring the use of face masks on nearly all forms of public transportation under federal law (here).

Reuters recently debunked claims that staff administering the COVID-19 vaccinations are war criminals in violation of the Nuremberg code (here).


False. Mask mandates do not violate the Nuremberg Code as they are not related to human experimentation or medical research. They are disease prevention measures covered under International Health Regulations. The screenshots in these posts are not from the Nuremberg code, but are partially copied from the 2005 UNESCO Universal Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights. This document does not relate to mask-wearing during a pandemic (nor does the Nuremberg Code).

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our work here  .