Dictionary of Gross Human Rights Violations

Universal Jurisdiction

Universal jurisdiction is a legal concept stipulating that certain international crimes may be prosecuted by any state (regardless of the location of the crime or the nationality of the perpetrators). There is some disagreement about which crimes fall under universal jurisdiction but generally the list includes genocide, crimes against humanity, torture, piracy, war crimes, slavery, and (possibly) hostage-taking. Universal jurisdiction can only be applied if the accused is present in the state prosecuting the crime (trials in absentia are not permitted). However, universal jurisdiction may be a basis for extradition requests.

The application of universal jurisdiction has the potential to lessen impunity for gross human rights violations as it greatly expands the scope of jurisdiction for serious crimes. States such as Belgium and Spain have utilised universal jurisdiction legislation to initiate legal proceedings against individuals accused of crimes such as genocide and crimes against humanity.

In spite of these advantages, the drawbacks to the exercise of universal jurisdiction include: a lack of legitimacy (the prosecuting state may have no connection to the alleged perpetrator or victims), impartiality (the crime is not being prosecuted in an international court but rather on the initiate of one state, a state that could be motivated more by political considerations than justice), and the difficulties in collecting evidence for cases that may have occurred years ago in distant geographic locations (states that may also not be willing to cooperate). Nonetheless, universal jurisdiction will likely take on increasing importance in the coming years as an alternative means to increase the enforcement of international criminal law.