Universal Criminal Jurisdiction

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Universal Criminal Jurisdiction

Universal criminal jurisdiction is the authority of state courts, or international tribunals with criminal jurisdiction, to prosecute certain crimes recognized under international law, regardless of where the offense occurred or the nationality of either the victim or perpetrator.

Many scholars argue that piracy was the first subject of universal criminal jurisdiction, to be exercised by any state that would enforce a prohibition against such acts. In its Article 105 the 1982 Convention on the Law of the Sea provides that every state has the right to seize a pirate ship, or aircraft or ship taken by piracy. The courts authorizing the seizure have the jurisdiction to prosecute and punish pirates who are seized. Engaging in the slave trade is usually cited as the second universal crime, but transporting slaves is now also covered by United Nations (UN) conventions. It was the nature of crimes committed on the high seas that first gave these actions universal status.

At the end of both World Wars I (1914–1918) and II (1939–1945) the victorious Allied leaders decided to create tribunals for the prosecution of war criminals, the most notable being the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremberg. The tribunal's charter gave it jurisdiction to try former high-ranking Nazi officials for the following crimes:

(a) crimes against peace, namely planning, preparation, initiation, or waging of a war of aggression … (b) war crimes, namely violations of the customs of war. Such violations shall include, but not be limited to, murder, ill-treatment or deportation to slave labor or for any other purpose of civilian population of or in occupied territory, murder or ill-treatment of prisoners of war or persons on the seas, killing of hostages, plunder of public or private property, wanton destruction of cities, towns or villages, or devastation not justified by military necessity; (c) crimes against humanity, namely murder, extermination, enslavement, deportation, and other inhumane acts committed against any civilian population; or persecutions on political, racial, or religious grounds in execution of, or in connection with, any crime within the jurisdiction of the Tribunal, whether or not in violation of the domestic law of the country where perpetrated. (Article 6)

The war crimes listed in Article 6(b) of the Nuremberg Charter were based on the precedents of international law as established in the 1899 and 1907 Hague Conventions and the 1929 Geneva Convention Related to the Treatment

of Prisoners of War. All the provisions enforced through the Nuremberg precedent were ratified by the UN General Assembly in 1946.

The 1948 UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide defined genocide as an act committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group and made it subject to universal jurisdiction.

The 1949 Geneva Conventions, especially Convention IV on the protection of civilians during time of war, advance the ideal of universal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity.

The 1984 UN Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment works in concert with customary international law to make torture subject to universal jurisdiction.

It should be noted that in addition to the conventions cited in this article, the principle of jus cogens (peremptory norm) holds that customary international norms against most of the crimes described in formal treaties or conventions are binding on all states in the world at all times. No suspension (or derogation) of these norms is permissible, and any state may thus exercise universal jurisdiction in prosecuting related crimes.

See also: Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment; Crimes Against Humanity; Genocide; International Criminal Court; Universal Declaration of Human Rights; War Crimes.


Avalon Project. Nuremberg Trial Proceedings Vol. 1: Charter of the International Military Tribunal. <http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/imt/proc/imtconst.htm>.

Ratner, Steven R., and Jason S. Abrams. Accountability for Human Rights Atrocities in International Law: Beyond the Nuremberg Legacy. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 2000.

REDRESS: Seeking Reparation for Torture Survivors. <http://www.redress.org/publications/unijeur.html>.

Steiner, Henry J., and Philip Alston. International Human Rights in Context: Law, Politics, Morals. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 2000.

Donald W. Jackson

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