Universal Jurisdiction in the United States

What is Universal Jurisdiction?

d1805_1Universal jurisdiction is a legal doctrine which permits domestic courts to try and punish perpetrators of some crimes so heinous that they amount to crimes against the whole of humanity, regardless of where they occurred or the nationality of the victim or perpetrator. The crimes subject to universal jurisdiction include piracy, slavery, crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture, and genocide. Universal jurisdiction is a departure from traditional approaches that require a direct connection between the prosecuting state and the particular crime. There is no formal legal basis for universal jurisdiction; rather, it represents a customary international norm.

The US does not exercise universal criminal jurisdiction, however the Alien Tort Claim Act provides US courts with jurisdiction to seek civil damages for specific crimes, such as human rights violations, committed anywhere in the world. The US is concerned that the exercise of universal jurisdiction by other states may result in politically motivated prosecutions of US citizens by foreign courts. In support of this concern, opponents of universal jurisdiction have pointed to recent cases brought under universal jurisdiction in several countries against US government officials to litigate controversial US policies and actions. For example, a criminal complaint was filed in Germany against former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, former Director of Central intelligence George Tenet, and others for alleged war crimes committed at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq and the Guantanamo Bay prison camp. However, the German prosecutor ultimately decided against pursuing an investigation in this case.

Examples of universal jurisdiction cases include: an extradition request by a Spanish Court seeking to try former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet for crimes such as torture, murder, illegal detention, and forced disappearances (1998); the prosecution and conviction of two Rwandan nuns, Sister Maria Kisito and Sister Gertrude, by a court in Belgium for war crimes committed during the 1994 Rwandan genocide (2001); the prosecution and conviction of Nikola Jorgic, a former leader of a paramilitary Serb group, and Novislav Djajic, a Serbian soldier, by German courts for acts of genocide committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina (1997); and the investigation and indictment of former president of Chad Hissène Habré by a Belgium court for crimes against humanity, torture, war crimes and other human rights violations committed during his presidency in Chad (2005).


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