Domestic Exercise of Universal Jurisdiction

The term “universal jurisdiction” refers to the idea that any national court may exercise criminal jurisdiction over serious crimes against international law—such as crimes against humanity, war crimes and torture—based on the principle that such crimes harm the international community (or order) itself, which individual States may act to protect. Generally, universal jurisdiction is invoked when other, traditional bases of criminal jurisdiction do not exist, meaning that the defendant committed no crime in that State’s territory or against its nationals.

A distinct, but related, evolving concept is that of “Responsibility to Protect”, which promotes the idea that States are obligated to intervene diplomatically and/or militarily to prevent the commission of crimes such as genocide and crimes against humanity. More information here. Both concepts are criticized as infringements on State sovereignty.

See the organization TRIAL’s explanation of universal jurisdiction here, and that of the Global Policy Forum here.

Spanish courts, in particular, (and especially Judge Baltasar Garzón) have made use of universal jurisdiction to try individuals from around the globe. Recently, however, the Spanish government restricted its courts’ ability to hear such cases by narrowing the legal basis for exercise of universal jurisdiction to those cases not already before another competent jurisdiction and that involve Spanish victims, perpetrators located in Spain, or that affect Spanish interests. See analysis by the Center for Justice and Accountability here.

Prominent cases include:
• the United Kingdom’s consideration (here, here and here) of Spain’s request to extradite former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet

• U.S. prosecution of the former Liberian president’s son, Chuckie Taylor

• Spanish prosecution of Guatemalan officials in the Guatemalan genocide case

• Spanish prosecution of El Salvadoran officials for the murder of six Jesuit priests

• Spanish prosecution of an Argentine naval officer for crimes against humanity during the Dirty War

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