Universal jurisdiction and its use to combat sexual violence

With developments seen in more than 60 cases in 16 jurisdictions, the year 2021 highlights the growing importance of universal jurisdiction within international justice. FIDH publishes today, in collaboration with TRIAL International, Civitas Maxima, the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR) and REDRESS, the Universal Jurisdiction Annual Review (UJAR ) 2022.

Sexual and gender-based violence

While welcoming the increase in universal jurisdiction cases, this year’s annual review of universal jurisdiction highlights the additional efforts needed to bring justice to victims of conflict-related sexual violence. A powerful tool in the fight against impunity for international crimes, universal jurisdiction must constitute an effective legal procedure for victims of sexual violence. Unfortunately, with regard to sexual violence, this is not yet the case in practice. Of the 125 counts of international crimes included in the 2021 edition of this report, only 17 related to conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence. UJAR 2022 explains why and how universal jurisdiction can become a more effective instrument for bringing justice to the victims and survivors of these crimes.

Universal jurisdiction: justice beyond borders

UJAR 2022 documents cases brought under universal jurisdiction for international crimes, including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, for which prosecutions have been initiated by judges or prosecutors across the planet and which experienced developments in 2021. In total, 125 of the charges were brought under universal jurisdiction, including 34 charges for war crimes, 66 for crimes against humanity, 25 for genocide. Only 17 charges were laid for conflict-related sexual violence.

Whether it concerns crimes committed during the genocide in Rwanda, during the war in Syria or even during the Jammeh era in Gambia, the national prosecuting authorities, thanks to universal jurisdiction, have an effective means of guaranteeing that the accused face their actions, and thus allow the voice of the victims to be heard.

“Universal jurisdiction continues to gain ground. With 17 accused currently on trial and 15 people convicted, the contribution of many States to the fight against impunity for international crimes is also made possible, and in an ever more important way, by the carrying of these cases listed in the UJAR 2022.

explains Giulia Soldan, Head of the International Investigations and Litigation Program at TRIAL International

Universal jurisdiction: a little-known tool for combating sexual violence

As a now established legal principle, with a recognized contribution to the fight against impunity, universal jurisdiction does not yet seem as effective in practice in the prosecution of sexual violence. After centuries of almost total invisibility and neglect, sexual crimes – such as rape, forced sterilization and nudity, sexual slavery – are now increasingly documented and prosecuted. For example, in 2021, several universal jurisdiction cases included convictions for sex crimes, as seen in the verdicts against Syrian Colonel Anwar Raslan in Germany and Liberian warlord Alieu Kosiah in Switzerland.

Despite this progress, sexual violence is still too rarely investigated and prosecuted in cases under universal jurisdiction. This can be explained by several factors, including the fact that these crimes are often not integrated into investigative strategies and, when prosecuted, have often been qualified as acts of torture. However, this legal characterization of sexual violence as an act of torture does not fully reflect the implications of such violence as a weapon of war and a deeply harmful social tactic aimed at weakening the social fabric of vulnerable communities. Furthermore, it should be noted that the testimonies of the victims are essential to prosecute these crimes. However, the risk of aggravating the trauma of the victims and the stigmatization to which they expose themselves by testifying illustrate the need for specific training of justice professionals to conduct these interviews.

About Universal Jurisdiction

The legal principle of universal jurisdiction is based on the idea that international crimes are of such gravity that they constitute an attack against all peoples and that the fight against impunity for those responsible for these crimes knows no geographical borders. Under this principle, States have the possibility (and sometimes even the obligation) to prosecute persons accused of international crimes found on their sovereign territory – wherever the crimes were committed and whatever the nationality of the perpetrators and victims.

About UJAR 2022

This publication has benefited from the generous support of the Oak Foundation, the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy, UKaid and the City of Geneva. It is a joint publication of FIDH, International TEST, Civitas Maxima, CJA, ECCHRand TO SORT OUT.

Read the UJAR 2022:

Thelma J. Longworth