Amnesty International released on October 5th a very useful report, Universal Jurisdiction: A Preliminary Survey of Legislation around the World. Among other things, the report finds that about three-quarters of countries have taken legislative steps to pursue universal jurisdiction, defining at least one international crime: war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide, and torture. Still, inconsistencies in how international crimes are defined and other gaps in domestic law represent an ongoing “impunity gap,” which limits universal jurisdiction in practice. Not to be overlooked are the report’s two annexes, charting which countries have defined which international crimes in their national law and detailing the relevant legislation. For those who believe universal jurisdiction is limited in scope, the report reveals a far broader range of possibilities.
Even more interesting than the report itself, though, is what happened the next day. On October 6th, Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni visited London, marking the first senior Israeli politician to do so since Britain’s universal jurisdiction law was changed last month. Livni’s visit was especially noteworthy since in 2009, in a highly publicized episode, she had cancelled a visit to Britain, after an arrest warrant was issued for her role in Operation Cast Lead. (See my earlier post on this.)
As the British and Israeli governments celebrated Livni’s arrival, word got out that Foreign Secretary William Hague had designated the visit a “special mission,” effectively giving Livni diplomatic immunity. So when two days earlier, a Palestinian police officer filed a complaint against her, on behalf of his brother killed in Operation Cast Lead, the legal process never actually made its way through the new channels.
Those most consumed by these events have hoped for (or feared, depending on their perspective), one thing: the end of universal jurisdiction. But beyond Britain and Israel, the view is far less certain. As Amnesty International’s global survey shows, 145 states have at least laid the legal groundwork for prosecuting international crimes. However partial and contested, universal jurisdiction now has its own political momentum—not to be so easily restrained.