Universal Jurisdiction in International Law: Definition & Cases

Instructor: Jason Tauches

Jason is a writer and attorney who holds a Juris Doctor and a Master of Laws as well as an MFA in Creative Writing

In this lesson we will be learning about the concept of universal jurisdiction and how it differs from national jurisdiction. We will also be looking at cases that illustrate the concept.

You're sitting in front of the TV and watching the news when suddenly a horrible news story comes on about some warlord in Nova Scotia who's using child soldiers to kill and pillage innocent villagers. ''That's outrageous!'' you say, as you eat your peas. ''Someone should stop that warlord! He should be brought to justice!'' But where could he be brought to justice? That's where universal jurisdiction comes in.


Jurisdiction is the ability of a court to hear a case. Most countries limit their jurisdiction to national jurisdiction, that is, they will only hear cases in their courts that have occurred on their territory or that will affect their national interests. For example, if a Frenchman comes to the United States and tries to steal all the baguettes on the East Coast, courts in the United States would have jurisdiction over him because his actions took place in the United States. However, if a Frenchman tried to steal all of the baguettes in Paris, the United States would have no reason to exercise jurisdiction over him because the crime did not take place in the United States and did not affect the interests of the United States.

Universal Jurisdiction

There are some crimes, however, that are considered so heinous that their results are said to affect the interests of all countries. All countries can, if they want to, exercise jurisdiction over the perpetrators of these crimes, no matter what the nationality of the perpetrator(s) is or where the crime occurred. Examples of such crimes are war crimes, such as using child soldiers, and crimes against humanity, such as apartheid and genocide.

The ability of a country to exercise jurisdiction over a person who has committed a crime whatever the nationality of the person accused may be or wherever the crime occurred is called universal jurisdiction. For example, the legislature of Spain passed a law that gave it jurisdiction to try war crimes and crimes against humanity in Spanish courts, regardless of the nationality of the perpetrator and regardless of where the crime occurred. Spain, therefore, had universal jurisdiction over war crimes and crimes against humanity.


While arguably 166 nations have some form of universal jurisdiction written into their domestic law when it comes to crimes against humanity, war crimes or genocide; in reality, there are very few cases in which a criminal will be brought to trial under universal jurisdiction. Of the universal jurisdiction cases brought to court, only 32 have resulted in trials in which a perpetrator was held accountable for their crimes. These cases have overwhelmingly been tried in three countries: Spain, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

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