Germany recently convicted a Syrian national for acts committed in Syria, against Syrians.
What in international law would authorize such an extraordinary exercise of jurisdiction? The answer is the doctrine of “universal jurisdiction,” which permits any nation to exercise jurisdiction over especially grave violations of international law with no territorial or national connection to the offense. Among these offenses are torture and crimes against humanity — the crimes the defendant was convicted of in the German proceedings. Specifically, the defendant was a former Syrian secret police officer who aided and abetted arresting and transporting protesters to an interrogation center known for torture nearly a decade ago.
There is a catch, however. Unlike when states extend their laws abroad based on an effect upon that state’s territory or persons — think securities laws or antitrust — universal jurisdiction relies on the crime itself to justify the exercise of jurisdiction.
This means an exercise of universal jurisdiction depends on the international definition of the crime at issue. If the state idiosyncratically expands the definition of, say, torture, and pursues prosecution on that unilateral definition, it will have violated international law. But where the domestic definition matches up with the international definition, it resolves important dilemmas for the exercise of jurisdiction; namely fair notice to the accused and infringement of the other state’s sovereignty.
If international law covers the globe — which is the whole point of international law — the accused cannot claim he wasn’t on notice of the law being applied to him since it extends everywhere.
Moreover, since states have agreed upon universal jurisdiction as a jurisdictional basis of international law, they cannot claim infringement of their sovereignty when prosecution involves their actors or territory. Indeed, one might even say that national law and courts like the German proceedings serve as the decentralized enforcement mechanisms for an international law that covers the world.
The New York Times reported the former Syrian official is the first “to be convicted of crimes against humanity, in a case that rights groups have hailed as a landmark in the effort to ensure justice for violations committed during Syria’s civil war.”
His conviction is indeed a message that such international criminals no longer have a place to hide. Put into practice, applying the doctrine of “universal jurisdiction” gives teeth to the promise of international human rights and justice.