No safe haven for torturers: the application of Universal Jurisdiction

The crime of torture is recognised to be so heinous, that it is one of a limited category of crimes in international law in which all countries have an obligation to see that perpetrators do not escape justice. In other words, if someone who commits torture is found in another country, that the second country has an obligation to bring the perpetrator to justice using its own courts, assuming that the person is not transferred for trial somewhere else. The United Nations Convention Against Torture and Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment and Punishment specifies in Article 5 that each State shall: "take such measures as may be necessary to establish its jurisdiction over such offences in cases where the alleged offender is present in any territory under its jurisdiction and it does not extradite him."

Why is Universal Jurisdiction important?

Universal Jurisdiction is very important because it is a recognition that the crimes to which it applies are not local crimes, they are "international crimes"; they are so egregious that they offend the sensibilities of the whole world and therefore the international community has an interest in seeing that justice is done. Universal Jurisdiction is a key way in which States enforce their obligations under international law and a condition precedent to the ending of impunity for the most serious crimes.

In modern times, in a globalised world, migration and travel are commonplace, and perpetrators, particularly after an end of conflict or a change in regime, are often found in other countries far from the scene of the crime. It is not often possible to bring them back to trial in the countries they left: (i) if the countries have just emerged from conflict, they might not have the tools or capacities to bring these persons to trial, or for a variety of reasons their courts may not yet be sufficiently independent or impartial to guarantee a fair trial; (ii) sometimes these crimes are perpetrated with the involvement or acquiescence of the State and in such cases it is not likely that this same state will prosecute; (iii) international criminal courts have limited mandates and they will not usually be in a position to try such perpetrators, particularly if they are not leaders with high levels of responsibility or if the State has not signed on to the Rome Statute.

What is REDRESS' work on Universal Jurisdiction?

REDRESS runs a listserv on universal jurisdiction for practitioners and others interested in universal jurisdiction to follow the latest developments: e.g., new cases, new laws or other news. Those interested in joining the listserv can apply by sending an email to: UJ-Info-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. REDRESS is also working on a number of investigations relating to suspects present in the United Kingdom and elsewhere and is promoting common approaches to the exercise of universal jurisdiction amongst member states of the European Union.

Select 'Universal Jurisdiction' from the 'Issue' drop-down menu below to see our latest submissions in this area.

Click here for our Reports on Universal Jurisdiction.


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