Universal jurisdiction is probably the most controversial principle of jurisdiction in international criminal law. It is certainly the most talked-about. The term ‘universal jurisdiction’ refers to jurisdiction established over a crime without reference to the place of perpetration, the nationality of the suspect or the victim or any other recognized linking point between the crime and the prosecuting State.
It is a principle of jurisdiction limited to specific crimes. There are those who deny that universal jurisdiction exists at all.
However, the view more consistent with current practice is that other than piracy, which is subject to universal jurisdiction owing to it occurring, by definition, on the high seas.
States are entitled to assert universal jurisdiction over war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and torture, as those crimes are defined in customary law. There are no examples of universal jurisdiction prosecutions for aggression.
Jurisdiction tends to inhere in States for the purpose of protecting their own interests. The purpose of universal jurisdiction, on the other hand, is linked to the idea that international crimes affect the international legal order as a whole.
Owing to the recognition that such offences affect all States and peoples, and awareness that territorial and nationality States do not always respond fairly and effectively to allegations of international crimes, international law grants all States the right to prosecute international crimes.
The precise conditions under which a State may do so, however, are controversial, and matters are not helped by a tendency to roll together the issues of whether universal jurisdiction exists and whether or not there is a duty to exercise such jurisdiction. This is compounded by a conflation of two other questions: if States may exercise universal jurisdiction and whether they ought to do so.