Picture credit: cja.org
The doctrine of universal jurisdiction allows national courts to try cases of the gravest crimes against humanity, even if these crimes are not committed in the national territory and even if they are committed by government leaders of other states.
The concept is not new, though states have shown an increasing willingness to enlarge the zone of their jurisdiction and to prosecute or extradite those in high places. The case of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet signaled changing international norms in the late 1990s. Brought by Spanish magistrate, Baltasar Garzón, and involving an extradition request to the United Kingdom, this case never came to trial, but it had a very broad legal impact.
As a result of the precedents of the Pinochet case, other leaders who have committed well-documented crimes have been pursued, including former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel. Kissinger has restricted his international travel, because he is wanted in so many jurisdictions either for trial or as a prosecution witness.
In recent years, however, several state governments have limited the use of universal jurisdiction by their domestic courts, after pressure from countries like the United States, Israel and China. The creation of the International Criminal Court in 2002 has also reduced the need for domestic courts to apply the doctrine.
This page analyses the concept of universal jurisdiction and follows the legal and political battles over attempts to invoke it.
UN Docments | Artices
Kenneth Roth responds to Henry Kissinger' s criticisms
of universal jurisdiction by stressing the importance of an international system of justice. He also points out the necessity for the US to embrace it, "even if it means that Americans, like everyone else, might sometimes be scrutinized". (Foreign Affairs
This Amnesty International paper discusses the scope of universal jurisdiction and the absence of immunity for heads of state over certain crimes under international law. This analysis is in direct reference to the House of Lords case to decide on Augusto Pinochet's extradition to Spain. Also included is an excellent summary of legislative provisions invoking universal jurisdiction in countries around the world.
The former Bolivian president Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada was formally charged by Bolivian courts for ordering his forces to suppress protests against his government’s policy on energy and globalization. His military forces reportedly killed 67 individuals and injured over 400 of the nation’s indigenous Aymara community, and the outrage which led to the “Gas Wars”, drove the president into exile in the US. Although a US-Bolivia extradition treaty currently exists, the US refused to accept this particular extradition request on the grounds that “a civilian leader cannot be tried for crimes committed by the military.” The politics behind this “justification” is transparent owing to Sánchez de Lozada’s pro-American ideology. It is unfortunate that political trivialities are keeping justice from being served to the families of those who d