Guo Xiaomei, China’s legal adviser to the Chinese Mission to the UN, presented to a General Assembly committee last week her country’s succinct position on universal jurisdiction. First, there’s no consensus on the meaning of universal jurisdiction (other than for piracy); jurisdiction remains territorially driven. Second, immunity for political leaders and diplomats trumps any notion of universal jurisdiction. Third, the obligation to “extradite or prosecute” is linked to specific treaties; there’s no general obligation to claim universal jurisdiction. Fourth, political abuse of universal jurisdiction is a violation of international law and state sovereignty. All told, she concluded:
We hope that a common understanding can be found through in-depth exchange of views. Pending such a common understanding, all states should refrain from exercising jurisdiction over another state in the name of so-called universal jurisdiction.
China is not alone in these critiques. In fact, Sri Lanka’s Permanent Representative to the UN made a similar statement last week, after a civil lawsuit was filed against its own deputy permanent representative to the UN for alleged torture in Sri Lanka. China’s position is a classic denial of how international human rights norms challenge traditional notions of state sovereignty. But it’s also a rhetorical gambit, premised on the assumption that other governments’ fears of universal jurisdiction will in the end stall the debate.