What is universal jurisdiction?

A State is usually competent to judge crimes if they have been committed on its territory, or by or against its citizens. However, the nature of international crimes is so serious that they constitute offenses against all humankind, thereby warranting special measures.

Among these, the principle of universal jurisdiction, based on the notion that the fight against impunity is borderless. Under this principle, States have the option – and sometimes the obligation – to prosecute criminals who are on their territory, regardless of where the crimes may have been committed or of the nationality of the perpetrators and the victims.

Policiers_PalaisJustice_4mai2015_©MagaliGirardin

Universal jurisdiction in international law

Universal jurisdiction has become an important principle of international law since World War II. It has been recognized in the Geneva Conventions (1949), which define the rules of war. Over time, this principle has become consolidated and has been enshrined in other major international conventions such as the Convention against Torture (1984). The principle of universal jurisdiction is also recognized in an increasing number of national legislations.

Universal jurisdiction is a powerful tool at the service of international justice, but it requires States to adopt appropriate legislation and sufficient resources for its implementation. Many States have adopted such legislation, but very few have the necessary resources to effectively fight the impunity of international crimes. The specific nature and complexity of these crimes demand considerable resources, such as the creation of specialist units within prosecution and police authorities, commonly called War Crimes Units.

TRIAL International and universal jurisdiction

Within the context of its Investigations and Criminal Law program, TRIAL investigates suspects of international crimes and files complaints based on the principle of universal jurisdiction. The organization also represents victims who wish to be joined as civil parties in these cases.