In This Review

Princeton Principles on Universal Jurisdiction.
Princeton Principles on Universal Jurisdiction.
By
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In January 2001, a group of scholars and jurists from around the world gathered in Princeton, New Jersey, to hash out guidelines for what has become an increasingly popular but controversial legal tool: the application of universal jurisdiction by domestic courts. Universal jurisdiction is the idea, put in practice most spectacularly during the United Kingdom's 1999 trials of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, that certain crimes are so heinous that they can be tried by the courts of any country -- regardless of whether the crimes occurred there or whether that nation's citizens were involved. Universal jurisdiction is a good way to put dictators on trial, even when their own national courts are too weak for the job. But since this approach allows local courts to go after foreigners, it is a doctrine particularly prone to political abuse. Hence the Princeton Principles -- an attempt to lay some basic ground rules. This workmanlike set of protocols helps clarify a sometimes confusing and rapidly evolving area of law. With its emphasis on due process and fairness, it proposes some commonsense ways to ensure the doctrine is applied as justly as possible.

The problem is that no paper principles will ever prevent the misapplication of universal jurisdiction for mischievous purposes. Such prevention would require good faith by all the countries involved -- a very tall order indeed. Consequently, the concept remains controversial and problematic. Still, these sensible proposals should clear the air somewhat. At the very least, they should make future abuses harder to get away with, since there is now a gold standard with which to compare them.