Universal Jurisdiction, the universal right to prosecute a perpetrator of heinous crimes anywhere in the world despite local amnesty laws, was the topic of discussion at Harvard Law School on September 26. In a talk hosted by the Human Rights Program, Spanish Judge Baltasar Garzon spoke about universal jurisdiction in today’s international criminal arena.

Garzon garnered worldwide attention in 1998 when he issued an international arrest warrant for former Chilean President Augusto Pinochet. The arrest warrant relied on universal jurisdiction—a principle first used against perpetrators of crimes against the Jewish people, during the Eichman case in Israel. Pinochet, who was living in the U.K. at the time, appealed the extradition. The case went all the way to the House of Lords, which affirmed the extradition. Although Pinochet died in Chile before he was convicted, his case marked a watershed in international law, ultimately resulting in changes to Chile’s immunity law and the development of new universal jurisdiction statutes.

“Universal Jurisdiction should not be seen as a way to limit national sovereignty, it is not an aggression against national criminal law,” said Garzon, “instead it is a way to fight impunity parallel and complementary to national criminal law.”

According to Garzon, national states are afraid to give up their sovereignty in favor of universal rights. When universal jurisdiction touches key countries such as China or the United States, the question becomes whether prosecuting universal crimes is more important than national interests. “Universal Jurisdiction is actually under reconstruction,” said Garzon. “The United Nations is elaborating an universal jurisdiction statute to clarify a concept that has been used in very different ways,” and he continued, “restricting universal jurisdiction is not necessarily a bad idea if such restriction is followed by a strict cooperation with the International Criminal Court system.”

“We should apply the principle of complementarity,” said Garzon. “International criminal justice, national criminal justice and universal jurisdiction should cooperate in order to prosecute universal crimes that are repugnant to every nation in the world.”

—Dalia Palombo