Advancing Global Accountability: The Role of Universal Jurisdiction in Prosecuting International Crimes

Howard Varney and Katarzyna Zduńczyk
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Recourse to universal jurisdiction as a justice mechanism for victims of international crimes has become increasingly popular in recent years. This is especially so given the small appetite for criminal accountability in countries where violations take place and the considerable shortfalls of the international justice system. Although universal jurisdiction faces serious challenges at the conceptual, legal, political, and practical levels, it often remains the only avenue for victims to pursue justice and address the “impunity gap.”

This study considers the rationale for universal jurisdiction and describes the challenges and controversies it faces today. It explores similarities and differences between domestic laws that give effect to universal jurisdiction and considers the leading role played by nongovernmental organizations in generating such cases at the domestic level. 

In particular, the study focuses on the use of universal jurisdiction with respect to serious crimes committed in Syria and provides examples of cases brought before various domestic courts. It also explores the relationship between accountability initiatives for Syria at the international level.

The future of universal jurisdiction as a viable mechanism of global justice is also considered. While this form of justice has made significant advances in recent years, it still faces considerable headwinds. The paper concludes with a set of recommendations aimed at entrenching universal jurisdiction as a globally recognized means of justice. 

The pursuit of universal jurisdiction has opened the door to the possibility of justice in contexts where it was previously thought impossible. A sufficiently high number of countries have introduced universal jurisdiction into their domestic systems. While there is no turning back, this approach to justice is far from generally accepted and has suffered setbacks. This is particularly the case at the political level, with the reach of universal jurisdiction being clawed back. Much work remains to be done to establish universal jurisdiction as a recognized and viable means of global justice.