Spain currently is in the process of adopting an amendment to its statute regarding universal jurisdiction for one of its courts. This post will examine that forthcoming amendment after looking at the background of that amendment.
Under customary international law and certain treaties, a nation state has universal jurisdiction over certain crimes of international concern regardless of where the crimes were committed or the nationality of the victims or perpetrators. 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. (This was discussed in a prior post.)
Spain implemented this principle in 1985 in its own domestic statutory law by conferring such jurisdiction on its National Court (La Audiencia Nacional) for the following crimes: (a) genocide; (b) terrorism; (c) piracy and hijacking of aircraft; (d) falsification of foreign currency; (e) prostitution and corruption of minors or incompetents; (f) trafficking in illegal, psychotropic, toxic and narcotic drugs; and (g) any other crimes under international treaties or conventions that should be prosecuted in Spain.
In 2009 Spain amended this statute to add these additional crimes for universal jurisdiction: crimes against humanity; illegal trafficking or illegal immigration of persons; and female genital mutilation (FGM). In addition, the amendment specified that these conditions or limitations had to be established for such jurisdiction: the alleged perpetrators were in Spain; or the victims were of Spanish nationality; or there was another connecting link to Spain.
Finally the 2009 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 were 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.
The New Amendment
On February 11, 2014, Spain’s Congress of Deputies (Congreso de los Diputados), the lower house of the country’s bicameral legislature (los Cortes Generales), approved another amendment to this statute (Article 23.4 of the 1985 Organic Law of the Judicial Power, as amended). Since the same political party (Party Popular) also controls Spain’s Senate, it is anticipated that the Senate will pass the bill as well. Here are the principal provisions of the amendment:
- The following specific crimes were added for universal jurisdiction: (i) war crimes (crimes against persons or goods in armed conflict); (ii) torture and crimes against moral integrity; (iii) crimes under the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material; (iv) crimes covered by the Council of Europe Convention on the prevention and combatting of violence against women and domestic violence; (v) offenses of corruption between private or international economic transactions; and (vi) crimes of enforced disappearances under the International Convention for Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances.
- Greater specificity was provided for offenses other than piracy covered by the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Maritime Navigation and its Protocol; offenses other than hijacking of aircraft under the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts against the Safety of Civil Aviation and its Supplemental Protocol; crimes against sexual freedom committed on children; and trafficking in human beings.
- For genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes, universal jurisdiction exists only if the accused individual is a Spanish citizen or a foreign citizen who is habitually resident in Spain or a foreigner who is found in Spain and whose extradition had been denied by Spanish authorities.
- For torture and disappearances, universal jurisdiction exists only if the prospective defendant is a Spanish citizen, or the victims were (at the time of the events in question) Spanish citizens and the person accused of the crime was in Spanish territory.
- Only public prosecutors and victims may initiate criminal proceedings under universal jurisdiction; other private individuals or groups (acusaciones populares) may not do so.
- Pending cases under the universal jurisdiction provision would be stayed and thereafter dismissed if they could not satisfy these new conditions.
There currently are 12 cases under this jurisdictional provision pending in Spanish courts, and presumably they all will be dismissed under this new amendment. They are the following:
- Genocide in Tibet. In 2006 the court commenced an investigation against five former Chinese Communist leaders, including former President Jiang Zemin, for alleged genocide in Tibet. In November 2013, the court issued arrest warrants for these individuals, and in early February 2014, the court rejected the prosecutor’s motion to quash the warrants. As a result, the court on February 10th asked INTERPOL to issue international arrest warrants for the Chinese individuals.
- Genocide in Guatemala. In 2003 the court commenced an investigation of eight former senior Guatemalan officials for alleged genocide, terrorism and torture.
- Genocide in Sahara. In 2006 a NGO commenced a case against 31 Moroccan military officers for alleged genocide in the Sahara Desert.
- Genocide in Rwanda. In 2005 an investigation was commenced against 69 senior Rwandan officials for alleged genocide and murder, and in 2008 arrest warrants were issued for 40 Rwandan soldiers.
- Holocaust. In 2008 a case was commenced by Spanish survivors of the Holocaust against four SS guards, and in 2009 international arrest warrants were issued for three of these guards.
- Murder of Spanish Diplomat. In 2012 the court commenced an investigation against seven Chilean officials for alleged participation in the 1976 kidnapping and assassination of a Spanish diplomat, Carmelo Soria. Last year a Chilean court rejected Spain’s request for the arrest of the officials.
- Persecution of Falun Gong. In 2006 the court started an investigation of alleged persecution of Falun Gong practitioners by the Chinese government between 1999 and 2002.
- Israeli Attack on “Freedom Flotilla” to Gaza. In 2010 the court started an investigation of Israeli officials for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity for an armed assault on ships with materials for Palestinians in Gaza.
- Murder of Spanish Journalist. In 2003 the court started an investigation of alleged U.S. military personnel in the 2003 death of a Spanish journalist, Jose Couso, in Iraq.
- Torture of Detainees on CIA Flights. In 2006 the court started an investigation of possible violations by CIA or other U.S. personnel with respect to detainees on CIA flights stopping at an airport in Spanish territory.
- Iraqi attack on Iranian refugee camp. In 2009 the court started to investigate an alleged Iraqi military attack on an Iranian refugee camp in 2008.
- Murder of the Jesuit priests. In 1999 the court commenced to investigate the 1989 murders of six Jesuit priests in El Salvador, and in 2011 the court ordered the arrest of 20 former Salvadoran military officials.
The immediate precipitating causes for the Spanish government’s seeking and obtaining approval of this amendment at this time are widely seen as the Spanish court’s issuance of arrest warrants, and seeking INTERPOL arrest warrants, for high officials of the Chinese Communist Party, including a former president of the country, for alleged genocide in Tibet; China’s vehement protests of these developments; and the Spanish government’s desire for a friendly economic relationship with China.
Indeed, on February 11th, China’s Foreign Ministry said, “China is extremely dissatisfied with and resolutely opposed to the wrong actions of the relevant Spanish [court] taken while ignoring China’s solemn position. Whether or not this issue can be appropriately dealt with is related to the healthy development of ties. We hope that the Spanish government can distinguish right from wrong.”
Human rights groups opposed the current proposed amendment. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the Center for Justice and Accountability and 14 others argue that under multilateral treaties ratified by Spain it has a legal obligation to prosecute any suspected offender of those treaties—regardless of where the crime was committed, who is found in Spain. Moreover, these groups say, the International Court of Justice explained in the case Belgium v. Senegal, this duty to prosecute arises “irrespective of the existence of a prior request for the extradition of the suspect” and requires States to adopt legislation giving its courts the necessary jurisdiction.
Although I regard myself as an human rights advocate and have great respect for Amnesty International and the other NGOs that have opposed the amendment, I dissent from their objections.
In my opinion, the amendment is a reaffirmation of Spain’s implementation of such jurisdiction. Indeed, as noted above, but not acknowledged in the NGOs’ objections, the amendment expands the crimes that are subject to universal jurisdiction and provides greater specificity for some of the crimes previously covered by the statute. This is important for future use of the statute and for due process notice to individuals who may be charged with such crimes in the future.
The main objection appears to be the amendment’s requirement for universal jurisdiction in some instances for an accused foreigner to be present (habitually resident or found) in Spain. This is akin to the U.S. constitutional due process requirement for a defendant to be present in the jurisdiction in order for personal jurisdiction in civil cases to exist, and I believe it is a reasonable requirement for criminal cases in Spain under its universal jurisdiction provisions.
Moreover, in many, if not all, of the previously mentioned 12 pending cases in Spain, the defendants have never been in Spain, and this has lead to the Spanish court’s unsuccessful efforts to enforce its own arrest warrants or the INTERPOL international arrest warrants. As a result, actual criminal prosecutions in these 12 cases have not even been commenced.
I know this is true in the case against 20 former Salvadoran military officers for their alleged involvement in the horrendous murders of the six Jesuit priests and their housekeeper and her daughter in El Salvador in November 1989. I think it is outrageous that these 20 individuals so far have not faced any criminal accountability or punishment for their alleged complicity in this awful crime and thus have de facto immunity or impunity for their actions, and I had hoped that the criminal case in Spain under its universal jurisdiction statute would bring them to justice. But unfortunately that has not happened. (Other posts on Spain’s case regarding the Jesuits’ murders, 6/15/11 and 8/26/11.)
Objection also has been made to the amendment’s imposing a requirement for universal jurisdiction in some instances for Spain to have denied a request for extradition. But at least as I read the English translation of the amendment, this requirement exists only for those foreigners who are temporarily in Spain and does not apply to foreigners who habitually reside in the country. For the passers-by this seems like a due process concern. How would you like while on holiday for one week on the Costa Brava to be charged with a serious crime by a Spanish court for something you allegedly did in the U.S. 10 years ago?
Furthermore, the amendment’s limitations also appear to be reasonable to make efficient use of Spanish judicial resources.
Finally, the Spanish government, in my opinion, has a legitimate interest in its efforts to have friendly economic relations with China as Spain continues to struggle to emerge from its economic difficulties, including high unemployment. Pursing justice for horrible crimes committed elsewhere is a laudable purpose and goal, but it is not the only purpose and goal of the Spanish government or any country’s government.
As an U.S. scholar stated, “With unemployment at 25 percent, Spaniards would be right to wonder why their officials were using taxpayer resources for other peoples’ problems and simultaneously risking even more Iberian jobs.”
 This summary of Spain’s new amendment by a retired U.S. lawyer who is not an expert on Spanish law is based upon the English translation of the new law (Proposed Law on Universal Justice to amend the Organic Law 6/1985 of 1 July on the Judiciary on universal justice, No. 122/000136) and of Spain’s Congress’ press release about the bill and the following English-language sources and translations (from Spanish): Perez, High court to follow through on arrest warrants against top Chinese officials, El Pais in English (Feb. 7, 2014); Amnesty Int’l and 15 other Human Rights Organizations, Spanish Lawmakers Should Reject Proposal Aimed at Closing the Door on Justice for the Most Serious Crimes (Feb. 10, 2014); Yardley, Spain Seeks to Curb Law Allowing Judges to Pursue Cases Globally, N.Y. Times (Feb. 10, 2014); Moffett, Spain’s Lower House Approves Law to Limit Judges’ Reach, W.S.J. (Feb. 11, 2014); The twelve causes of ‘universal justice,’ El Mundo (Feb. 11, 2014); Molto, Tibet to universal justice: Chronicle of an announced impunity, El Pais (Feb.11, 2014); Kassam, Spain moves to curb legal convention allowing trials of foreign rights abuses, Guardian (Feb. 11, 2014).
 These treaties include the Geneva Conventions; the U.N. Convention against Torture; the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearances; the Hague Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Seizure of Aircraft; and the Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material.