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Sixty-fifth session

The scope and application of the principle of universal jurisdiction
(Agenda item 86)

Summary of work

Background (source: A/65/100)

The item entitled “The scope and application of the principle of universal jurisdiction” was included in the provisional agenda of the sixty-fifth session of the General Assembly pursuant to Assembly resolution 64/117 of 16 December 2009.

At its 2nd plenary meeting, on 17 September 2010, the General Assembly, on the recommendation of the General Committee, decided to include the item in its agenda and to allocate it to the Sixth Committee.

Consideration at the sixty-fifth session

The Sixth Committee considered the item at its 10th, 11th, 12th, 27th and 28th meetings, on 13 and 14 October, as well as on 5 and 11 November 2010 respectively. For its consideration of the item, the Committee had before it the report of the Secretary-General on the scope and application of the principle of universal jurisdiction (A/65/181).

Statements were made by the representatives of: Iran (Islamic Republic of) (on behalf of the Non-Aligned movement), Chile (on behalf of the Rio Group), Malawi (on behalf of the African Group), Canada (also on behalf of Australia and New Zealand), Egypt, Guatemala, Belarus, Peru, Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, Rwanda, Norway, Thailand, Republic of Korea, Czech Republic, Senegal, Spain, Slovenia, China, Algeria, Argentina, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Cuba, United States of America, Belgium, United Republic of Tanzania, Vietnam, Lebanon, Finland, Russian Federation, the Netherlands, Ghana, Tunisia, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Germany, South Africa, Iran (Islamic Republic of), Chile, Israel, Brazil, Sweden, Venezuela, the Sudan, Malaysia, the United Kingdom, India, Liechtenstein, Lesotho and Nigeria. The observer delegation of the International Committee on the Red Cross also made a statement.

In their general observations, delegations affirmed that the principle of universal jurisdiction was enshrined in international law. Delegations reaffirmed their commitment to the fight against impunity for heinous crimes and underscored the relevance of universal jurisdiction in that regard. Nonetheless, it was observed that the principle was still incipient and that there was insufficient legal clarity regarding its scope and application. Concern was expressed over the abuse of the principle, given its vague definition. Some delegations expressed the view that universal jurisdiction constituted an exception of a subsidiary character to the regular bases of jurisdiction, and was to be asserted as a last resort, namely after all other relevant venues had been pursued.

With respect to the scope of universal jurisdiction, delegations expressed divergent opinions. Some delegations emphasized that there was no clarity or consensus on the scope of crimes covered by the principle beyond piracy, while some other delegations included genocide, war crimes, torture and crimes against humanity within the scope of crimes encompassed by universal jurisdiction. The view was also expressed that the material scope of universal jurisdiction was in fact under constant development and it was questioned, whether it was advisable to reach a consensus on a list of crimes. Some delegations cautioned against any unwarranted expansion of the crimes covered under universal jurisdiction.

Several delegations also pointed out that while the principle of universal jurisdiction was in some ways related to other aspects of international law, such as the obligation to extradite or prosecute (aut dedere aut judicare), the question of immunity of state officials, other forms of extraterritorial jurisdiction, the exercise of jurisdiction by international tribunals and methods to solve conflicts of jurisdiction, these must be clearly distinguished from the item under consideration.

With regard to the application of the principle, delegations expressed the view that universal jurisdiction should always be exercised in good faith and in accordance with other principles of international law, including the sovereign equality of States and immunity of State officials, as well as in accordance with the rule of law. Delegations also pointed to the need to avoid the abuse of the principle in practice.

States were called upon to ensure that they have proper national legal framework in place for the exercise of universal jurisdiction. Several delegations also described their laws and practice relevant to universal jurisdiction.

As to the future work on this topic, delegations noted that further clarification was needed to prevent any misapplication or improper resort to the principle. A universally acceptable definition of universal jurisdiction and a shared understanding of its application were called for by some delegations, while some other delegations stated that the focus should be on procedural and organizational recommendations. The potential negotiation of uniform standards at the international level through an international treaty was also suggested.

Several delegations also suggested the establishment of a working group of the Sixth Committee and the preparation of a study by the Secretariat to assist in the effort. Delegations also called for the issuance of a new report by the Secretary General and urged States that have not already done so to submit their comments in compliance with General Assembly resolution 64/117.

Some delegations suggested that the item be considered by the International Law Commission, since it was already considering the related topics, namely: The obligation to extradite or prosecute (aut dedere aut judicare) and Immunity of state officials from foreign criminal jurisdiction. Moreover, the topic “Extraterritorial jurisdiction” was on the long-term programme of the Commission. The point was nevertheless also made that the debate should first be exhausted at the Sixth Committee level before moving it elsewhere.

Action taken by the Sixth Committee

At the 27 meeting, on 5 November 2010, the representative of Ghana introduced draft resolution A/C.6/65/L.18, entitled “The scope and application of the principle of universal jurisdiction”, on behalf of the Bureau. At its 28th meeting, on 11 November 2010, the Committee adopted draft resolution A/C.6/65/L.18 without a vote.

Under the draft resolution, the General Assembly would request the Secretary-General to invite member States and relevant observers, as appropriate, to submit information and observations before 30 April 2011 on the scope and application of universal jurisdiction, including, where appropriate, information on the relevant applicable international treaties, their domestic legal rules and judicial practice, and to prepare and submit to the General Assembly, at its sixty-sixth session, a report based on such information and observations. The Assembly would further decide that the Sixth Committee shall continue its consideration of the item, without prejudice to the consideration of the topic and related issues in other forums of the United Nations. For this purpose, a working group of the Sixth Committee would be established to undertake a thorough discussion of the scope and application of universal jurisdiction. It was also understood that the Secretariat would prepare for the working group envisaged in the draft resolution a compilation of international treaties and decisions of international tribunals, which may be relevant to the principle of universal jurisdiction.

This agenda item was subsequently considered at the sixty-sixth session (2011).

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A/65/181 - Full texts of replies
Armenia (English)
Australia (English)
Austria (English)
Azerbaijan (Original: Russian) (English)
Belarus (Original: Russian) (English)
Belgium (Original: French) (English)
Bolivia (Original: Spanish) (English)
Bulgaria (English)
Cameroon (Original: French) (English)
Chile (Original: Spanish) (English)
China (Original: Chinese) (English)
Costa Rica (Original: Spanish) (English)
Cuba (Original: Spanish) (English)
Cyprus (English)
Czech Republic (English)
Denmark (English)
El Salvador (Original: Spanish) (English)
Estonia (English)
Ethiopia (English)
Finland (English)
France (Original: French) (English)
Germany (English)
Iraq (English)
Israel (English)
Italy (English)
Kenya (English)
Kuwait (Original: Arabic) (English)
Lebanon (English)
Malaysia (English)
Malta (English)
Mauritius (English)
Netherlands (English)
New Zealand (English)
Norway (English)
Peru (Original: Spanish) (English)
Portugal (English)
Republic of Korea (English)
Rwanda (English)
Slovenia (English)
South Africa (English)
Sweden (English)
Switzerland (Original: French) (English)
Tunisia (Original: Arabic) (English)
United States (English)