Universal jurisdiction is widely recognized as a facet of international law which allows perpetrators of particularly heinous crimes to be prosecuted by any nation, regardless of where the crime took place. Heinous crimes are generally defined as crimes against humanity, torture, and war crimes, among others. Universal jurisdiction is intended to serve as a safety net for victims of major international crime when cases are not tried in the jurisdiction in which they were committed. There are several treaties currently in effect under which signatories are obligated to use universal jurisdiction, including the 1949 Geneva Conventions. There are 194 states which have ratified the Geneva Conventions, thus each of these states would be obligated to use universal jurisdiction in the event of a crime that falls under its currently recognized scope.
Historically, this principle has been enacted to prosecute serious war criminals. Examples of universal jurisdiction in practice include the 1961 prosecution of a senior Nazi official for his role in the Holocaust in Israel, and in 1999, the United Kingdom’s House of Lords voted to extradite former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet to Spain to stand trial for charges of torture and conspiracy to torture.
Concern among United Nations member states still stands around the definition of universal jurisdiction, with many warning during the 73rd session of the Sixth Committee in 2018 that unclear definitions of the principle may lead to misuse, abuse, or conflict between states, while others are concerned about the implications universal jurisdiction may have on state sovereignty. It is the role of the Legal committee to address the definition of universal jurisdiction. Delegations should bear in mind the historical context surrounding universal jurisdiction and work as a body to address this deeply important issue.
Universal jurisdiction has also been a key point of contention within the international community in that it requires voluntary compliance by states, and only applies to those that have ratified the treaties that give them effect. While states are often willing to participate in international criminal adjudication, there are a great number of instances in which states have been more hesitant to surrender their own citizens to courts that they have no power over. This, like much of the work done by the United Nations, requires a delicate balancing of state sovereignty and the desire to achieve justice across the globe.