Universal Jurisdiction in the UK – why it matters

On the dome of the Old Bailey, England’s Central Criminal Court, stands the statue of Justice, with her sword and scales, above an inscription which exhorts us to “Defend the children of the poor and punish the wrongdoer.” There is no command that the latter aspirations should be limited only to those lacking influence, power and money: it should be applied equally.

I was very disturbed by the announcement this week that the government is looking urgently at ways to change the law to restrict the application of universal justice in this country, in the wake of the arrest warrant which was issued against Tzipi Livni, the former Foreign minister of Israel. 

I have no desire to get into the rights and wrongs of this case nor any other. What concerns me is the effect any such change of law has in closing off avenues for redress for anyone, anywhere for the most grevious crimes in the name of short term political expediency. Of course, I am thinking of those survivors of the human rights atrocities in Guatemala and their struggle for justice.

The 1949 Geneva Conventions first established the principle that some crimes were so heinous that they transcended the definition of "ordinary" crimes, and became prosecutable anywhere. The normal
legal principle that only crimes committed in a country can be tried and punished in that country could be set aside for acts which were considered to attack the very notion of what it is to be human. Universal jurisdiction can be invoked when crimes against humanity have occured: crimes that are so abhorrent we have a duty to punish them should individuals accused of them come within our legal system’s grasp. Just like the domestic law, we must strive for an international regime where the perpetrators, or potential perpetrators of such acts pause for thought at the possibility that somewhere, some time they would have to answer for their crimes. The idea that we should water this down
in this country is shameful.

Clearly, any law which says that we can try anyone for crimes they allegedly perpetrated elsewhere, carries the risk that it might be used for political purposes, to institute show trials against the politically unpopular and the disposable. However just because this risk exists – and anyone who thinks for half a minute can surely find examples of our domestic law hardly being free of bias – does not mean that the whole idea should be rejected. Yes, we have the International Criminal Court, which is intended to get around this very problem – but its jurisdiction is not by its own admission universal.

If we move away from theory and idealism to practice, Pinochet case showed that the operation of universal justice is already imperfect: this interesting analysis by the Redress Trust into its legal status and application in Europe makes clear the difficulties. The way in which the law is implemented in ten countries is analysed, including the United Kingdom, and you can see that each country has its own interpretation.

However, the Redress document is out of date. It does not mention the case brought by Rigoberta Menchu in 2000, nor the fact that the Spanish government recently caved in to external pressure and restricted the application of universal justice in their legal system.

In contrast to popular perception, the statue of Justice on the old Bailey is not blindfold – indeed the use of a blindfold by Justice would surely be a hindrance to it being clearsightedly reached. We must not have the UK follow Spain in giving Justice blinkers.

I am writing to my MP about this and would urge you to do the same if you are concerned. An EDM, no 502, has been tabled on this issue – you could ask your MP to sign it. I have attached a sample letter which
you could adapt.

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Categories: Genocide, Human Rights, Legal

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