What is International Jurisdiction?

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  • Written By: Terry Masters
  • Edited By: Allegra J. Lingo
  • Last Modified Date: 02 February 2020
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International jurisdiction is the exercise of judicial authority over a person accused of war crimes, genocide, or crimes against humanity by an international criminal tribunal for the purpose of deciding guilt and punishment. It is the purview of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the special international criminal tribunals periodically established to assess violations of human rights and humanitarian law in specific countries. Authority for a system of international jurisdiction stems from international law and the adoption of treatises establishing the ICC and relevant human rights and humanitarian law documents that have been ratified by many of the countries around the world.

Ordinarily, jurisdiction is territorial. The responsibility lies with a country to prosecute people for crimes committed within its borders. It goes against the long-held notion of national supremacy to allow any outside country or entity to reach into a country and exert authority over matters and citizens that the country controls.

The development of international law and the adoption of the notion of basic human rights changed the jurisdictional landscape. As a result of the atrocities committed by the Nazis in World War II and subsequent instances of genocide and devastating state or military action against civilian populations, the world developed principals of humanitarian law that were ultimately ratified into treaty. International tribunals were commissioned in countries as needed to prosecute those accused of crimes. Their international jurisdiction and authority was derived from the country itself and the resolution of wartime conflict.


In 2002, the international community established the ICC to serve as a forum for violations of human rights and humanitarian law. The ICC asserts international jurisdiction over a person in any case where the country in which the acts were committed is not in a position to prosecute the accused effectively. In this way, the ICC exerts complementary jurisdiction, or jurisdiction in lieu of a country’s natural jurisdiction in the matter.

International jurisdiction is an integral part of the authority of the ICC and is trending towards further expansion as more and more countries adopt principals that protect civilian populations and condemn atrocities. There are opponents, however, that feel that this type of jurisdiction is too arbitrary, unorganized, and not firmly grounded in the procedure of law. They feel that territorial jurisdiction has been a suitable mechanism for exerting state control over individuals historically and is still the best method, even in cases of crimes against populations that shock the conscience.


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