Universal jurisdiction is necessary to ensure that there is no hiding place for the world’s most brutal criminals. The arrest warrant for Saif Gaddafi was issued by the ICC, but had he fled to the UK, could he have been tried there?
Geoffrey Bindman, chair of the British Institute for Human Rights, made these observations recently. He was calling sensibly for universal jurisdiction laws to be reformed, so that immunity for state officials doesn’t translate into a denial of justice. A few days later, Alemayehu Mariam, writing in Ethiopian Review, extolled universal jurisdiction for its promise that dictators “can’t run, can’t hide.” And Inna Lazareva, in Foreign Policy this month, warns Yemen’s Saleh: “you can run but you can’t hide.”
This intriguing language of chasing dictators, with nowhere to escape, often frames defenses of universal jurisdiction. In some ways, it reveals an embedded imagery of hunting, of criminals as prey. It also feeds into critiques raised by scholars like Makau Mutua and Mahmoud Mamdani, that human rights discourse inadvertently evokes images of savior and savage. If this is even partly true—and this is an open question—is there a more productive way of depicting the benefits of universal jurisdiction, of moving beyond the rhetoric of hiding?