ERGA OMNES (Ər-gah Om-niz)
This site explores universal jurisdiction, through the prism of politics and human rights. Universal jurisdiction is the revolutionary idea that any country can prosecute anyone for basic human rights crimes committed anywhere. Usually, this is a topic covered by legal experts, but I’m a political scientist and human rights scholar. I am especially curious about the contentious place of universal jurisdiction in today’s world—about the political and social struggles that ensue when states attempt to prosecute non-nationals for human rights crimes and the ethical and policy questions that follow. The blog offers a space to reflect broadly on universal jurisdiction around the world, on contemporary debates and developments,including those surrounding torture, genocide, and piracy on the high seas.
The International Court of Justice (or World Court) recognized the notion of erga omnes in the Barcelona Traction case between Belgium and Spain in 1971. In that landmark case, Belgium accused Spain of harming its nationals, who were private shareholders in a utility company located in Barcelona. The Court found the international body didn’t have jurisdiction over the claims, which were private interests rather than obligations owed to all. It referred to erga omnes as:
the obligations of a State towards the international community as a whole, [so that] all States can be held to have a legal interest in their protection….Such obligations derive, for example, in contemporary international law, from the outlawing of acts of aggression, and of genocide, as also from the principles and rules concerning the basic rights of the human person, including protection from slavery and racial discrimination.
When basic human rights are violated, or erga omnes obligations are broken, the stage is set for invoking—and resisting—universal jurisdiction.
A postscript on gendered language: Omnes, translated literally from Latin into the vernacular, means men. Over time, however, the standard translation has been all, since the original meaning denoted universality–even if, in seventeenth-century Europe like today, ‘universality’ doesn’t in practice encompass all people equally.