A crime so universally heinous and universally condemned under the law of nations that states may assert jurisdiction to charge, convict and punish even though the state has no territorial connection to the offender or its victims.1
Universal jurisdiction has been defined as:
"... the right of any state to arrest and try a person for certain internationally defined offences... (and may include) slave trade, genocide and certain war crimes (and) aircraft hijacking ... apartheid and terrorism (and) piracy..."2
In R v Hape, Justice Lebel of Canada's Supreme Court wrote, at ¶61:
"There are other bases of extraterritorial jurisdiction that, although less widely recognized, are nonetheless cited from time to time as justifications for a state’s assertion of jurisdiction. One example is the principle of universal jurisdiction, pursuant to which jurisdiction may be asserted over acts committed, in other countries, by foreigners against other foreigners. Assertions of universal jurisdiction are not based on any link of territoriality or nationality between the crime or the perpetrator and the state.... For that reason, universal jurisdiction is confined to the most serious crimes and includes crimes under international law. Any state that obtains custody of accused persons may try and punish those who have committed crimes under international law"
In Tel-Oren v Libyan Arab Rebublic, the Court relied on this statement of law at Footnote #7:
"The premise of universal jurisdiction is that a state may exercise jurisdiction to define and punish certain offenses recognized by the community of nations as of universal concern ... even where no other recognized basis of jurisdiction is present."
In that same case, the United States Court of Appeals referred to these lists of internationally-recognized crimes which expose the offender to universal jurisdiction because the conduct violates current norms of international law:
"... genocide; slavery or slave trade; the murder or causing the disappearance of individuals; torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; prolonged arbitrary detention; systematic racial discrimination; consistent patterns of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights (and) genocide, summary execution, torture and slavery as core human rights violations."
- NOTE 1: United States v. Yunis, 924 F. 2d 1086 (1991)
- NOTE 2: Macallister-Smith, Peter, Gen. Ed., Encyclopedia of Public International Law, Vol. 3 (Amsterdam: Elsevier Science BV, 1997), pages 55-60.
- R. v. Hape, 2007 SCC 26
- Tel-Oren v. Libyan Arab Republic, 726 F. 2d 774 (1984)
- US v. Georgescu, 723 F. Supp. 912 (United States District Court, 1989)