Human Rights and International Law (2): Universal Jurisdiction

Some countries have granted their courts so-called “universal jurisdiction” in certain matters. Traditionally, courts only have national jurisdiction and can only punish crimes committed on the national territory; crimes committed elsewhere should be handled by the courts of the country in question or by international courts. Laws of one country are also generally understood to be applicable in that country only. Universal jurisdiction in effect leads to extra-territoriality of the law. Some laws are valid outside the territory as well and national judiciaries can apply these laws to acts committed elsewhere.

Belgium, for instance, at one time allowed its courts to prosecute genocide, even if the crime of genocide was committed abroad and no Belgians were involved either as perpetrators or as victims. This was a commendable initiative from a moral point of view, but there are several reasons why universal jurisdiction is not very effective and cannot replace national and international law.

  1. The victims of genocide, or the representatives of these victims, if they already know that Belgian courts can possibly help them, will find it difficult to go to Belgium to plead their case. These people will probably live in some Third World country and will not have the financial means to start court proceedings in Belgium (where the hell is Belgium anyway?)
  2. The perpetrators are mostly not in Belgium and can therefore not be punished by the Belgian courts. If convicted, they will simply avoid Belgium and it is unlikely that they will be extradited by their home state since they generally occupy a leading function in the government of their state. The only tangible result is a number of diplomatic crises between Belgium and other states, sometimes traditionally friendly states.
  3. The Belgian courts quickly find themselves in the position of Atlas, carrying the whole burden of global suffering. There is no way in which these courts, already suffering serious delays, can handle all submitted cases.
  4. Political agitators will use the Belgian law to make publicity for their case. They will be tempted to file spurious charges against their political enemies. For example, friends of Saddam Hussein filed charges against President George W. Bush and some other leading members of his administration for waging war against Saddam. The Belgian courts, of course, could not refuse these charges without examination. So an investigation was launched, which deeply upset the Americans, who even threatened to move NATO headquarters out of Belgium, supposedly to protect American officials visiting these headquarters. After all, the Americans know that they are no saints and that Belgian courts can one day decide that there is a case to be made against some of their officials, and can try to arrest them.
  5. What if several states decide to start cases simultaneously against one and the same offender, each using its right to universal jurisdiction? That would create judicial uncertainty and many practical problems.

However, in the absence of effective national or international jurisdiction, universal jurisdiction may be the only alternative. And even if it’s not effective for the reasons given above, it sends a signal.

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