Skip to content Skip to footer

Universal Jurisdiction: A Major Tool for Justice

One of the highly progressive acts that followed the end of World War II was the establishment of the principle of universal jurisdiction (UJ). UJ is a legal process that allows states that are signatories to various international treaties and conventions (such as the Geneva Conventions) to prosecute alleged violators of these treaties, even when … Continued

One of the highly progressive acts that followed the end of World War II was the establishment of the principle of universal jurisdiction (UJ). UJ is a legal process that allows states that are signatories to various international treaties and conventions (such as the Geneva Conventions) to prosecute alleged violators of these treaties, even when the violations are committed outside the country's usual jurisdiction. This process is particularly relevant if it can be demonstrated that the home government of the accused has no intention of bringing him or her to trial for the alleged offense. The assumption behind the UJ principle is that the crime committed is so egregious as to be seen as a crime against humanity at large. In the wake of the Nazi Holocaust and other such crimes against humanity, UJ was accepted as a necessary and positive legal step by almost all Western nations. So, one can only imagine that, with the images of concentration camps freshly impressed upon their minds, the leaders who agreed to UJ in the mid- to late 1940's never imagined the possibility that their own successors might someday be subject to its consequences. Yet, fast-fowarding to the present, that is exactly what is happening (albeit rather imperfectly).

Now, on February 8, an announcement was made that former president George W. Bush had suddenly cancelled a trip to Geneva, Switzerland. He had been invited to give a February 12 speech on “freedom” at a fundraising event sponsored by the United Israel Appeal. Almost immediately upon learning of Bush's visit to Geneva, several human rights organizations, including the New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights, announced that they would seek a warrant for Bush's arrest for violation of the Convention Against Torture. While the Swiss Justice Ministry suggested that Bush would have immunity for actions taken while he was in office, the human rights organizations quickly pointed out that, under the Convention, to which Switzerland is a signatory, no such immunity exists. Upon learning that Bush decided not to test the issue and cancelled his trip, Katherine Gallagher, a spokesperson for the Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights, responded: “The reach of the Convention Against Torture is wide. This case is prepared and will be waiting for him wherever he travels next.”

Bush is not the only former leader susceptible to universal jurisdiction. His companions – such as Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzales and his accomplice lawyers, and all the CIA “perpetrators” who used “it is not torture” procedures such as waterboarding to torture and sometimes murder suspects in dark dungeons in out-of-the-way places – are equally vulnerable. The fact that on February 7, 2002, then-president Bush signed a memorandum stating, “I determine that Common Article 3 of Geneva [governing treatment of prisoners of war] does not apply to either al Qaeda or Taliban detainees” has no legal standing. Presidents can do a lot of things, but, it turns out, they cannot arbitrarily create exemptions when it comes to negotiated treaties (whose status, by the way, remains as the laws of the land). The invented “enemy combatant” designation will not save Mr. Bush and his associates if ever they are caught abroad.

Nor is it just Americans who are candidates for prosecution under UJ. Indeed, the number of nations whose leaders have, of late, made the mistake of considering these sorts of international laws just too “quaint” to take seriously is embarrassing long. Second only to the Americans in this regard are the Israelis, and it is interesting that it was to an Israeli fundraiser that Bush was heading before he canceled his Switzerland trip. The Israelis have made a virtual art of defying their treaty obligations to – as Common Article 3 of Geneva requires – foreswear “torture [and] outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment” of prisoners of war and noncombatants. Several members of the former Israeli government (the one that invaded Gaza), such as ex-foreign minister Tzipi Livni, have cancelled trips to England and elsewhere in Europe. One Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) general got as far as Heathrow Airport and then thought better of debarking the plane. Another had to be ushered out of New Zealand two steps ahead of a suddenly threatening legal action. It is perhaps a significant sign of legal equality between East and West and North and South that Western leaders who turn criminal are now, potentially at least, in the same legal boat as Pol Pot and Augusto Pinochet.

What all this does is narrow the range of movement for people like Bush and Livni. It is not quite the “stay in your home country” version of house arrest. Bush can still go to China or Saudi Arabia if he wants, and, I am told, high-ranking Israelis and their bodyguards like to vacation in Goa, India. However, the range of choices is getting narrower.

There is, however, a really big loophole, and that is the ability of these criminals to safely stay home. This, too, is a standing violation of international treaty obligations. A spokesperson for Human Rights Watch pointed out that the “US government should take the lead to investigate former president George W. Bush and other senior officials … rather than leaving prosecutions to other countries.” This is, of course, absolutely true. However, one of the first things that President Barack Obama did upon taking office was to shut down any possibility of this happening. Not only will he not countenance such investigations at home, but he has tried very hard to prevent other countries, such as Spain, from doing so. What do you call someone who hides evidence and refuses to cooperate in the investigation of a crime? Isn't there some domestic law against that?

Unfortunately, there is a working assumption in the United States that presidents can not only break the law at will, but also protect former ones who have done so. Gerald Ford protected Richard Nixon for plain old criminal breaking and entering; almost everyone in the government shied away from punishing Ronald Reagan for violating the Constitution and illegally arming gangsters whom, in his myopic old age, he mistook for freedom fighters. Instead of prosecuting Reagan, Congress named a Washington, DC-area airport after him! And now it is George W.'s turn. Since Bush is an even bigger offender than Reagan, perhaps the state legislature will vote to rename Texas after him.

All kidding aside, the threat of universal jurisdiction worries many leaders in the developed world, and they are looking to do away with it. Unless human rights groups can organize sufficiently to keep up political pressure, these people have half a chance of succeeding. Here are a couple of reasons why:

  1. Most people, particularly in the Western democracies, just don't care. They are hardly aware of the things their leaders do, especially abroad, and among those who are aware, some think that the resulting crimes are warranted.
  2. As the massive crimes of World War II recede into the past, Western leaders forget the horrors that are possible right in their own backyard. It was the concentration camps and the Holocaust of Westerners in the West that shook up the great powers and convinced them that universal jurisdiction was necessary. No similar concern was ever expressed as long as such horrors were committed by Westerners in the non-Western world. In any case, the memories have dimmed, and concern among the elites now is focused on how UJ complicates diplomatic relations between states if one of those states has notable citizens chargeable under the treaties.

So, as we all celebrate the power of Egypt's organized masses to bring down dictators and hope that example will spread far and wide, let us not forget our own homegrown monsters. UJ is the best hope the world has to at least hem in the criminal leaders of great power states who everyone had assumed were untouchable. UJ is a major tool for justice, and we should all cherish and protect it – and, most of all, use it.

Briefly, we wanted to update you on where Truthout stands this month.

To be brutally honest, Truthout is behind on our fundraising goals for the year. There are a lot of reasons why. We’re dealing with broad trends in our industry, trends that have led publications like Vice, BuzzFeed, and National Geographic to make painful cuts. Everyone is feeling the squeeze of inflation. And despite its lasting importance, news readership is declining.

To ensure we stay out of the red by the end of the year, we have a long way to go. Our future is threatened.

We’ve stayed online over two decades thanks to the support of our readers. Because you believe in the power of our work, share our transformative stories, and give to keep us going strong, we know we can make it through this tough moment.

We’ve launched a campaign to raise $35,000 in the next 4 days. Please consider making a donation today.