Universal Jurisdiction: Notable Developments in 2015

A new publication on universal jurisdiction examines 37 cases relating to universal jurisdiction in which notable developments took place in 2014. It examines cases from Canada, Belgium, Senegal, South Africa, Argentina, France, Norway, Germany, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and UK.

The findings in this report demonstrate that despite obstacles to the investigation and prosecution of serious crimes under international law, a significant practice has taken shape globally over the course of 2014. In the majority of the identified countries, civil society, victims and/or lawyers have been the driving force behind universal jurisdiction cases, while, in others, criminal justice authorities pro-actively seek to prevent their territory from being used as a safe haven by suspected perpetrators of international crimes. On the thirty-seven cases addressed in this report, progress was made in more than twelve cases, while in five other cases, individuals were found guilty of having participated in the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. In the twelve countries addressed, thirty-one cases are still ongoing, involving nineteen charges of genocide, fifteen charges of crimes against humanity and eight charges of war crimes.

The following are exerpts from the publication of cases of interest. See ‘Make Way for Justice: Universal Jurisdiction Annual Review 2015’ for more detailed content. 

Spain: On 13 March 2014, Spain adopted new legislation restricting its universal jurisdiction law. Henceforth, Spanish jurisdictions are competent to investigate genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes in three cases: the suspect is a Spanish citizen; the suspect habitually resides in Spain; or the suspect is a foreigner, present on Spanish territory, whose extradition has been denied. These new requirements do not apply to crimes of terrorism, and crimes connected to such an offence.

Spain: Ongoing investigation in Spain against former Guatemalan officials for the alleged crimes of genocide, torture and extrajudicial killings committed in Guatemala during the internal armed conflict between 1960 and 1996. Judge Santiago Pedraz used the charges of terrorism to allow the investigation of connected crimes, such as genocide.

Spain: Closed proceedings against former Chinese officials for the alleged repression against the Tibetan population in the Tibet region, during the 1980s and 1990s. In June 2014, the Spanish National Court dismissed the case. It considered that under the new law of universal jurisdiction, Spanish courts did not have jurisdiction to investigate and judge the crimes committed, as the defendants were not Spanish, nor ordinarily resident in Spain, nor foreigners whose extradition had been denied by the Spanish authorities. On 18 September 2014 there was an appeal before the Spanish Supreme Court, based on the existence of terrorism charges (not concerned by the universal jurisdiction reform) and on the Spanish nationality of one of the victims of the alleged crimes.

South Africa: The case was launched against Zimbabwean officials for serious crimes under international law allegedly committed during the March 2007 election in Zimbabwe and the raid of the opposition party’s (MDC) headquarters by the state police. This is the first case in South Africa to be opened under South Africa’s Implementation of the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court Act (ICC Act).

Senegal: An investigation was ongoing before the Extraordinary African Chambers (EAC) at the Senegalese courts against former Chadian President Hissene Habré . In February 2015, the four judges of the EAC ruled that there was sufficient evidence to send Hissène Habré to trial for crimes against humanity, war crimes, and torture. His trial is expected to start in 2015.

France:  Ongoing proceedings against French companies, including QOSMOS, and their management, for allegedly aiding and abetting crimes of torture committed in Syria since 2011. Proccedings against French company AMESYS and its management for allegedly aiding and abetting crimes of torture committed in Libya during the Muammar Gaddafi regime (from 1969 to 2011).

Argentina: Ongoing proceedings in Argentina for alleged serious crimes under international law committed in Paraguay during the Alfredo Stroessner dictatorship (1954-1989). A Truth and Reconciliation Commission established in Paraguay in 2003 identified various serious human rights violations committed by State agents during the dictatorship, including arbitrary detentions, torture and other cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment, enforced disappearances and extrajudicial killings.

Argentina: Ongoing proceedings in Argentina against former Spanish officials and other actors of the Franco dictatorship for alleged serious crimes under international law committed in Spain between 1936 and 1977.

Sweden: Closed proceedings for crimes of genocide committed during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda (first genocide trial in Sweden) also based on principle of nationality.

Spain: Ongoing investigation in Spain against three US soldiers for the alleged murder of José Couso, cameraman for the Spanish network Telecinco, during the Iraq war in 2003 also based on passive personality principle.

Interesting cases relating to immunity: 

UK:  Ongoing trial against a former Nepali official for serious crimes under international law allegedly committed in Nepal between 2005 and 2006, during the non-international armed conflict that tore the country apart. He claims to be entitled to immunity as he was acting on official duties in 2005. He argues that he currently enjoys immunity as a peacekeeper with the United Nations, and claims that he has already been convicted and punished in Nepal under the Nepalese Torture Compensation Act.

Switzerland: Ongoing proceedings against the former President of Chad for alleged serious crimes under international law, committed in Chad between 1982 and 1990. Khaled Nezzar’s appeal was rejected: the court considered that immunities cannot be invoked for international crimes.

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