The Piracy Analogy: Modern Universal Jurisdiction’s Hollow Foundation

In recent years, courts around the world have relied on universal jurisdiction with increasing frequency to justify proceedings against alleged perpetrators of human rights offenses in foreign countries. The doctrine of universal jurisdiction holds that a nation can prosecute offenses to which it has no connection at all—the jurisdiction is based solely on the extraordinary heinousness of the alleged conduct. According to the doctrine, any nation can prosecute universal offenses, even over the objection of the defendants’ and victims’ home states. Examples of universal jurisdiction include Belgium’s indictment of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for alleged responsibility for war crimes committed by Christian Arabs against Muslim Arabs in Lebanon and the conviction by German and Swiss courts of Serbian officials who committed war crimes against Bosnian Muslims.

Universal jurisdiction can have dangerous consequences, especially in the absence of generally accepted limitations on its scope. Unlike all other forms of international jurisdiction, the universal kind is not premised on notions of sovereignty or state consent. Rather, it is intended to override them. An assertion of universal jurisdiction can create conflict and possibly hostilities among countries because it can be construed as an encroachment on the sovereign authority of the country that has traditional jurisdiction over the offense. For hundreds of years, universal jurisdiction only applied to the crime of piracy. In recent decades, however, universal jurisdiction has been asserted over many human rights offenses. The expansion in universal jurisdiction’s scope has been accompanied by an increase in states’ willingness to use it.

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