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Universal Jurisdiction

The principle of universal jurisdiction allows the national authorities of any state to investigate and prosecute people for serious international crimes even if they were committed in another country. For example, this means that the German government could, if it chose to do so, prosecute U.S. officials for crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Using this principle, the International Anti Corruption Court can actively pursue cases in multiple countries seeking to investigate and prosecute those Government officials to strengthen the enforcement of criminal laws in order to punish and deter leaders who are corrupt and regularly violate human rights, and to create opportunities for the democratic process to replace them with leaders dedicated to serving their citizens. 

Universal Jurisdiction is based on the notion that some crimes – such as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, enforced disappearance, torture and corruption – are of such exceptional gravity that they affect the fundamental interests of the international community as a whole. Accordingly, there is no condition that the suspect or victim be a citizen of the state exercising universal jurisdiction or that the crime directly harmed the state’s own national interests. The only condition for exercising universal jurisdiction is therefore not – as in traditional doctrines of jurisdiction nationality – location or national interests, but rather the nature of the crime. Recent years have seen a rising number of universal jurisdiction cases filed before national courts in Europe, North America, Latin America, and Africa—this increase in cases can be attributed to a rising interest of the international community to hold accountable those responsible for the worst crimes, including enforced disappearance of children and torture.


An environment supporting of the principle of universal jurisdiction was created following the establishment of the ad-hoc tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in 1993 and 1994, respectively, and extended to the establishment of the internationalized courts such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone and the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts for Cambodia. The efforts to ensure individual criminal accountability culminated in the establishment of the International Criminal Court on July 1, 2002.

Why Universal Jurisdiction is Necessary: A Brief History

Originally applied to hold pirates and slave traders accountable for their crimes, the principle of universal jurisdiction today extends to all who commit some of the most serious human rights violations. The idea of universal jurisdiction was key in establishing accountability in several post-World War II trials following the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. Additionally, the obligation on states to seek out and prosecute those said to be responsible for grave "breaches" of international humanitarian law is a key aspect of the four Geneva Conventions of 1949. The principle was codified for torture in the 1984 Torture Convention.

While the courts of the country in which the crime took place would appear to be the preferred jurisdiction to obtain justice for victims of gross human rights violations, there are two central reasons why a system of universal jurisdiction is necessary in many instances:

1) Universal jurisdiction provides victims of international crimes with access to justice.

Courts in the “territorial state” are often inaccessible for victims for a variety of reasons, including the availability of domestic immunities or self-imposed amnesties and de facto impunity and security risks, especially when the crimes were state-sponsored. For instance, a domestic amnesty law in Chile protected former dictator Augusto Pinochet and other government officials in Chile, but the law was not able to stop proceedings filed against him in Spain using the doctrine of universal jurisdiction by victims who managed to escape his dictatorship.


2) Universal jurisdiction bridges the impunity gap.

While in some cases victims may obtain justice through international tribunals and courts or the ICC, these courts are constrained by a mandate that is limited to a specific territories, conflicts, or time periods. Examples are the two ad-hoc tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda or the Special Court for Sierra Leone. The ICC is limited also in that it can only prosecute crimes committed after July 1, 2002. Additionally, neither the ICC nor the international courts and tribunals have sufficient resources to investigate or prosecute all alleged perpetrators. Indeed, the Office of the Prosecutor of the ICC indicated there’s a “risk of an impunity gap,” meaning some human rights violators may fall through the legal cracks, unless “national authorities, the international community, and the ICC work together to ensure that all appropriate means for bringing other perpetrators to justice are used.” Similarly, the preamble of the Rome Statute of the ICC expressly provides that it “is the duty of every State to exercise its criminal jurisdiction over those responsible for international crimes” and emphasizes that “the International Criminal Court established under this Statute shall be complementary to national criminal jurisdictions.”


This is why the International Criminal Court against Corruption has been established to close the impunity gap and avoid that human rights violators "fall through the cracks".

Universal jurisdiction is therefore an important complement to traditional jurisdictions as well as to international justice mechanisms.

Universal Jurisdiction in Practice

While the increase of universal jurisdiction proceedings is a testament to the fact that universal jurisdiction is no longer a mere legal theory, there are still necessary components to ensure that cases are successful. These include, first and foremost, political will as well as dedicated individuals. An international framework that provides for cooperation and exchange and that guarantees effective and efficient investigation and prosecution is equally important. While the number of States applying the principle in practice is increasing, it still remains low. To be truly universal, the commitment to universal jurisdiction will need to expand to countries outside of the European Union, Latin America, or South Africa.


The ongoing proceedings against former Chadian dictator Hissène Habré in Senegal on the basis of universal jurisdiction and the extradition of former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori from Chile to Peru serve as two promising examples for an expansion.

And cases against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, previously filed in Germany, is one avenue to ensure that U.S. officials can also be held accountable for torture, war crimes, and crimes against humanity under the principle of universal jurisdiction.

Universal Jurisdiction for U.S. Torture

For more than a decade, international organizations have been working in foreign and international areas for accountability for the U.S. torture program using the principle of universal jurisdiction, following a refusal by the Department of Justice or President Obama to open criminal investigations at home.  Working with the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and the Canadian Center for International Justice (CCIJ), and with the support of experts and partners around the globe, these organizations have filed cases in GermanyFranceSwitzerlandSpain and Canada and before the United Nations Committee Against Torture (CAT).


Investigations into U.S. torture are on-going in Spain, and the UN CAT is reviewing Canada’s failure to uphold its universal jurisdiction obligations to investigate George Bush for torture, following the filing of a case against him during his visit to British Columbia in 2011.


What advantages does the Court have over universal jurisdiction?


The ICC has a single set of developed, uniform standards for the application of its jurisdiction. By contrast, there is no uniformity among states’ universal jurisdiction laws with respect to the definitions of crimes and the circumstances in which jurisdiction may be exercised. Additionally, the International Criminal Court against Corruption is an independent international institution, thus it is not limited or influenced by the political considerations and interests that affect states. As a specialized institution, the Court also is better equipped to pursue investigations and prosecutions due to its resources, expertise, and international support.


How is international justice served by having both systems?


Proponents of universal jurisdiction believe that both systems will serve international justice by providing states with more choices. In that way, the International Criminal Court against Corruption and universal jurisdiction, each operating where the other may not, may be said to be separate pieces of a comprehensive approach to ending impunity for perpetrators of serious international crimes.

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