International law includes a mechanism (called universal jurisdiction) by which states can prosecute individuals for certain without regard to the nationality of the victim and/or the suspect, no matter where the crime occurred. Although it has only become especially relevant in the postwar era, legal precursors have been traced back all the way to the Justinian Code.

Excercising universal jurisdiction is not as simple as a prosecutor merely announcing that he or she is going to prosecute someone, however. First, the state must have enacted a law allowing them to exercise universal jurisdiction. To date, at least 125 states have laws that allow them to claim jurisdiction over at least some crimes.

Legal scholar Kenneth Randall offers five cases under which universal jurisdiction can be exercised. These are: (1)if the crime affects a state directly even if it does not occur directly on their territory; if the (2)perpetrator or the (3)victim is a national of the prosecuting state; (4) if the act seriously affects the security of the prosecuting state; (5) or if the act is universally condemned - e.g., if it's a crime against humanity.

To date, according to Amnesty International, fifteen countries have utilized universal jurisdiction from start to finish (investigation to completed trial). These are: Australia, Austria, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, Israel, Mexico, the Netherlands, Senegal, Spain, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Although it can be used for other purposes, universal jurisdiction exists primarily to prosecute acts that rise to the level of war crimes or crimes against humanity - slavery, piracy and the like.

Universal jurisdiction was most famously exercised for some of the post-World War II trials of Japanese and German war criminals. Both the United States and the United Kingdom cited universal jurisdiction in arguments in some of these trials, including some of the Nuremberg trials. After the U.S. and U.K. backed off on war crimes tribunals at the start of the cold war, Israel picked up the banner of universal jurisdiction, most notably in the Adolf Eichmann case. Additionally, any number of countries have exercised universal jurisdiction over Argentina (for crimes including kidnapping and assassination), Yugoslavia and Rwanda(genocide).

Even more recently, several of head of state have been made the targets of courts using universal jurisdiction, some more effectively than others. Among these are Saddam Hussein, Ariel Sharon and Laurent Kabila.

A good primer on universal jurisdiction can be found at

Universal jurisdiction is a legal principle whereby states claim the ability to prosecute crimes regardless of where they were committed or who committed them.

Universal jurisdiction is designed to address a fundamental problem with the idea of human rights. Human rights are said to be held by everyone, whatever state they are born into. However, the actual enforcement of these rights is usually carried out by the states themselves. In the UK, if I am robbed, the state will come to my aid and enforce my right to property. But conversely, we find that the greatest violators of human rights are also protected by states themselves; for instance, in Darfur. States like Sudan will plead their sovereignty in defence of their actions, and the advocate of human rights has little recourse. As a matter of practicality, rights follow power.

Universal jurisdiction is hence an attempt to impose a universal concept of rights on a world where, as a practical matter, rights are parochial; it is an attempt to bypass states who would protect violators. But while the criminal prosecution of human rights violations is still carried out at the behest of individual states, it is always open to the charge that it is motivated by the parochial interests of that state rather than loftier principles: hence everything from the Nuremberg Trials to the Hague Tribunal is lambasted as "victor's justice". Which, of course, it is; although this does not make it wrong.

The attempt to forever remove the stain of state interference is hence what motivates human rights advocates to demand universal jurisdiction be exercised by an international body such as the International Criminal Court. But this body would still need to be able to enforce its will on the states, including through violence: rights still follow power.


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