Universal Jurisdiction for the Most Serious Crimes

Under customary international law, a nation state’s courts have jurisdiction over crimes where there is some link, usually territorial, between that state and the crime. In addition, under customary international law and certain treaties, a state has universal jurisdiction over certain crimes of international concern regardless of where the crime was committed or the nationality of the victim or perpetrator. These crimes of international concern are (a) piracy; (b) slavery; (c) war crimes; (d) crimes against peace; (e) crimes against humanity; (f) genocide; and (g) torture.[1]

Amnesty International recently released a comprehensive review of domestic statutes regarding criminal jurisdiction in the 193 members of the United Nations. It found that 75% of the members provided for universal  jurisdiction over one or more of the above crimes.  Yet there are many obstacles to effective use of these jurisdictional statutes. States often incorporate incomplete or incorrect definitions of such crimes into their domestic codes. Another obstacle is incorporation of defenses that are inconsistent with the international law for these crimes: following superior orders; statutes of limitation; amnesty laws; pardons; and immunities.[2]

On the other hand, this study found only 19 states have actually invoked universal jurisdiction since World War II. They are Argentina, Austria, Australia, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Israel, Netherlands, Norway, Paraguay, Senegal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the U.S.[3]

As we have seen, one of these 19 states–Spain–currently is invoking its domestic statute that implements the principle of universal jurisdiction for its criminal prosecution of former Salvadoran military officers for the November 1989 murders of the six Jesuit priests and their cook and her daughter at the Universidad de Centro America in San Salvador.[4] Spain’s statute provides that its National Court (La Audiencia Nacional) has universal jurisdiction for war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity and torture.[5]

In 2009 Spain adopted an amendment that added the following conditions or limitations on such jurisdiction: (1) the alleged perpetrators are in Spain; or (2) the victims are of Spanish nationality; or (3) there is another connecting link to Spain. In addition, the amendment specified that for such Spanish jurisdiction to exist another country or international tribunal had not started a process involving an investigation and successful prosecution of such offenses; if there is such another process, then the Spanish court should suspend or stay its case until the other investigation and prosecution has been concluded. The latter provision is referred to as the subsidiary principle.[6]

This amendment has been seen by some as a significant and regrettable limitation on universal jurisdiction in Spain.[7] In my opinion, however, the amendment is a reaffirmation of Spain’s implementation of such jurisdiction, and the limitations are reasonable to make efficient use of Spanish judicial resources. Moreover, the subsidiary principle is similar to the International Criminal Court’s notion of complementarity whereby the ICC does not take a criminal case if there is a good faith criminal investigation or prosecution in a national court system or a good faith decision by a state not to prosecute.[8] The same considerations find expression in the U.S. notions of comity or forum non conveniens whereby a civil case in an U.S. court is stayed or dismissed if it makes more sense for the case to be litigated in another country.


[1] David Weissbrodt, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, Joan Fitzpatrick, and Frank Newman, International Human Rights: Law, Policy and Process, at 572-86 (4th ed. 2009); Princeton Project on Universal Jurisdiction, Princeton Principles on Universal Jurisdiction (2001). Especially noteworthy is a blog exclusively devoted to universal jurisdiction: http://ergaomnesnet.wordpress.net.

[2] Amnesty Int’l, Universal Jurisdiction: A Preliminary Survey of Legislation Around the World (Oct. 2001 [“AI Study”]; van Schaack, Amnesty International Universal Jurisdiction Study, IntLawGrlls (Nov. 30, 2011).

[3] Id.

[4] Post: International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court’s Case Regarding the Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests (Aug. 26, 2011); Post: International Criminal Justice: Spanish Court Issues Criminal Arrest Warrants for Salvadoran Murders of Jesuit Priests (May 31, 2011); Post: International Criminal Justice: Developments in Spanish Court’s Case Regarding the Salvadoran Murders of the Jesuit Priests (Aug. 26, 2001); Post: Spain Requests Extradition of Suspects in Jesuits Case (Dec. 3, 2011).

[5] AI Study at 105; Human Rights Watch, Universal Jurisdiction in Europe, ch. XII (June 27, 2006). The Criminal Division of the Spanish National Court in Madrid has six chambers. An instructing (or investigative) judge presides over each chamber. Once an instructing judge accepts a criminal case, that judge initiates an investigation. After the completion of the investigation, the instructing judge closes the case and transfers it within the court to a panel usually of three judges who will preside over the trial or “oral phase” of the case. Such criminal cases are commenced by ordinary citizens filing a criminal complaint. If a victim files the complaint directly with an instructing judge, then the victim becomes a party to the case for further proceedings. This is known as a private prosecution (acusacion particular). (Center for Justice & Accountability, The Spanish National Court: An Overview of La Audiencia Nacional, http://www.cja.org/article.php?id=342&printsafe=1.)

[6] Spain, Government Gazette No. 266, Law I/2009, First Article (Nov. 4, 2009) (amendment to Article 23.4 of Organic Law 6/1985) (Google English translation); Burnett & Simons, Push in Spain to Limit Reach of the Court, N.Y. Times (May 20, 2009); Burnett, Spain Votes on Changes to Inquiry Law, N.Y. Times, (June 26, 2009); Assoc. Press, Spain Shortens Long Arm of Justice, N.Y. Times (Oct. 15, 2009).

[7] Center for Justice & Accountability, Bill Restricting Spain’s Universal Jurisdiction Law Passes First Round of Voting, http://cja.org/article.php?id=666 (circa June 25, 2009); Human Rights Watch, The world needs Spain’s universal jurisdiction law (June 27, 2009).

[8]  Post: International Criminal Court: Introduction (April 28, 2011).

International Criminal Court: ICC Prosecutor Updates U.N. Security Council on Sudan (Darfur)

As previously reported, the ICC has been investigating the situation in Sudan (Darfur) for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes since July 1, 2002, at the request of the U.N. Security Council.[1]

On June 8, 2011, the ICC Prosecutor made his semi-annual report to the U.N. Security Council on the status of his office’s investigations and prosecutions in this matter.[2] The following are the main points of that report:

  • There are three pending ICC prosecutions from Sudan (Darfur). In two of them–Harun and Kushayh and Bashir–the defendants are still at large, and thus the proceedings have not really commenced. In the third case against two rebel commanders, the parties have agreed to certain facts and limited the trial to three issues: (1) whether a certain attack by the rebels was unlawful; (2) if the attack is deemed to be unlawful, whether the defendants were aware of the factual circumstances that established its illegality; and (3) whether the African Union Mission in Sudan was a peacekeeping mission in accordance with the U.N. Charter. In this third case, the defendants do not dispute their participation in the attack and both have committed to surrender voluntarily to the ICC.
  • The Prosecutor also said his office was considering presenting a fourth Sudanese case to the Court’s Pre-Trial Chamber for its decision whether or not to issue arrest warrants.
  • All of these cases concern past alleged crimes. In addition, the Prosecutor reported that the following crimes were continuing: bombing attacks targeting or indiscriminately affecting civilians; ground attacks targeting civilians; widespread sexual and gender-based violence; attacks on human rights defenders, civil society members and community leaders; deliberately inflicting conditions of life calculated to cause physical destruction of groups of people; forcible transferring of populations; recruitment and use of child soldiers; and concealing information on crimes.
  • The government of Sudan has announced its investigations of these alleged crimes and the creation of new entities to do so, but there are no such investigations, and the announcements are parts of a governmental policy of covering up the crimes and avoiding international scrutiny.
  • When the ICC exposes these crimes, the reaction of President Bashir and other leaders has been “to deny the crimes entirely, attribute them to other factors (such as inter-tribal feud), divert attention by publicizing . . . ceasefire agreements that are violated as soon as they are announced and threaten the international community with retaliation and even more crimes. . . . Bashir has successfully transformed public knowledge of his criminal responsibility as a negotiating tool.”
  • “It is the challenging responsibility of the . . . Security Council to use the information exposed by the [ICC] to stop the crimes in Darfur, to protect the civilians in Darfur. The [ICC] Prosecution, fulfilling its mandate, is willing to assist.”

After the submission of this report, the Council’s 15 members went into private session to discuss the report. They were joined by representatives of 37 other countries.[3]

Immediately after this Security Council meeting there were reports of a “growing sense of panic” in central Sudan with 60,000 displaced people, blocked relief convoys, ethnic clashes and many deaths. This week the Council was given an alarming report about current violence and threatened ethnic cleansing.[4] In short, the armed conflict in Darfur has not stopped. Nor has the illegal intentional practice of targeting civilians.

Sudanese President Bashir’s evasion of arrest to face ICC charges continues to make the news. On June 13th, Hillary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State, addressed African leaders at a meeting of the African Union in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and pressed them to abandon authoritarian rulers. President Bashir also was in Addis Ababa for the meeting, but left before Clinton arrived.[5] On June 14th Amnesty International urged Malaysia to withdraw an invitation to President Bashir to attend an upcoming economic forum and to arrest him if he came. On June 16th Amnesty International made a similar plea to China after its announcement that Bashir would be visiting that country next week supposedly to talk about seeking peace in his country.[6]


[1] See Post: International Criminal Justice: Introduction (April 26, 2011); Post: International Criminal Court: Introduction (April 28, 2011); Post: International Criminal Court: Investigations and Prosecutions (April 28, 2011).

[2]  ICC Office of Prosecutor, Thirteenth Report of the [ICC] Prosecutor to the UN Security Council [on Sudan (Darfur)] (June 8, 2011); ICC Office of Prosecutor, Statement to the [U.N.] Security Council on the situation in Darfur, the Sudan (June 8, 2011); U.N. Security Council,6548th Meeting (June 8, 2011); U.N. Security Council, Press Release: President of Sudan Has Learned To Defy Security Council . . . . (June 8, 2011).

[3]  U.N. Security Council, 6549th (closed) meeting (June 8, 2011).

[4]  Gettleman, U.N. Officials Warn of a Growing ‘Panic” in Central Sudan as Violence Spreads, N.Y. Times (June 15, 2011); Lynch, Obama expresses concern over Sudan violence, Wash. Post (June 16, 2011); Reeves, In Sudan, genocide anew?, Wash. Post (June 17, 2011); Totten, Is Omar Hassan al-Bashir Up to Genocide Again?, N.Y. Times (June 18, 2011).

[5] Myers, Clinton Presses Africans to Abandon Authoritarian Rulers, Singling Out Qaddafi, N.Y. Times (June 13, 2011).

[6] AP, Amnesty urges Malaysia to withdraw invitation to Sudan president or arrest him when he arrives, Wash. Post (June 14, 2011); AP, China Invites Sudan Leader Accused of War Crimes, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2011); AP, US Seeks China’s Help in Sudan as Alarm Grows, N.Y. Times (June 16, 2011); AP, Sudan leader al-Bashir to skip Malaysia forum amid calls to arrest him on war crime charges, Wash. Post (June 15, 2011).