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What is a Universal Jurisdiction?

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  • Written By: T. Carrier
  • Edited By: John Allen
  • Last Modified Date: 08 November 2016
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In international law, the question of universal jurisdiction — or the universality principle — often serves as a source of contention among various global regions. This principle embraces the idea that certain crimes are so egregious that some regions have authority to prosecute the crime even if it did did not occur within their jurisdiction; these crimes are sometimes classified as "crimes against humanity." Various legal doctrines have both supported and condemned universal jurisdiction.

The concept of jus cogens is a principle of public international law stating that certain universal guidelines exist — erga omnes, "in relation to everyone" — and that these guidelines must be respected by all regions. Respecting global rules is thus actio popularis, or an action that serves a greater common good. According to this belief, no treaty or law should modify or abolish these global principles.

Proponents of universal jurisdiction argue that according to this dictate, certain criminal acts may be claimed and prosecuted by any independent region. Such crimes are so offensive and devastating that they are not simply a crime against one victim, but a crime against all of humanity. War crimes, genocide, and assassinations are some of the offenses for which universal jurisdiction has been argued and implemented.

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The universality principle has long been debated among regions and legal scholars. Many disputes arise when one region wishes to claim jurisdiction and subsequent prosecutorial rights over an offender, only to be thwarted by a different region’s own claim of jurisdiction. Often, this conflict arises when a suspected offender has fled from the region of the crime and relocated to another region. Critics of universal jurisdiction argue that the principle undermines the authority of the regions wishing jurisdiction and is thus often used as a means of political maneuvering and bargaining. In such cases, the freedoms of the suspected offender are also possibly being violated, which has led to proposed initiatives like the rule of law in armed conflicts project to curtail human rights abuses and establish global law guidelines.

In contrast, organizations such as Amnesty International believe that universal jurisdiction preserves the moral fabric and safety of all regions. The principle, they argue, banishes any safe havens from the suspected offender. All regions, in fact, have a moral and legal obligation to condemn certain crimes and exercise this condemnation in a lawful, just manner. This approach puts forth a no-tolerance policy on abhorrent crimes and behaviors, and actually thus fosters a global sense of unity and fellowship. Despite the hope for agreement and commonalities, universal jurisdiction laws differ around the globe.

While the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1674 provides a basic foundation for universal jurisdiction, individual regions have adopted their own interpretations and exceptions. For example, state leaders may be granted immunity from universal jurisdiction in some cases. Some governments have enacted laws to preserve their right to prosecute citizens of their region, regardless of where the crime was committed. Many regions have also outlined the specific types of crimes for which they may claim universal jurisdiction. In high-level cases, such as the Nuremberg trials of the World War II era, international court tribunals may wrest jurisdiction from any individual region.

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