We spoke to Mr Philip Grant, the founder and executive director of Trial International.
TRIAL International is a non-governmental organization fighting impunity for international crimes and supporting victims in their quest for justice. Philip Grant is TRIAL’s executive director, he founded the NGO in 2002 and was its first president.
“Universal jurisdiction is a legal principle grounded in international law. It derives from various international conventions and basically it allows and at some point, even obliges states to exercise the criminal jurisdiction over a perpetrator who might have committed crimes abroad against foreign victims and even if the perpetrator doesn’t even have the nationality of the state that is exercising jurisdiction. So basically, it means there’s a series of crimes that are so abhorrent so grave that the international community as a whole can exercise jurisdiction over them what is it genocide crimes against humanity war crimes torture and enforced disappearances. Basically, those the gravest of all human rights violations.” said Mr Grant.
THE RULE OF IMMUNITY IS AN IMPORTANT
The first thing to understand is that it’s a legal setting right. There are some rules that apply (to universal jurisdiction) and of course I mean just to start with the basically obvious things. A fair trial must be guaranteed to the suspected perpetrators, the second issue is that states exercising universal jurisdiction have to respect immunities. There are a certain number of people that under international law cannot be prosecuted by a foreign country basically a head of state a sitting head of state, a prime minister, a minister of foreign affairs. Those important people who represent their state abroad cannot be prosecuted under even if they have committed genocide. Okay, we need to be clear about that there’s no possibility to go after a sitting president. Once the person leaves office it is possible and there are some precedents. A former dictator of chad he was sentenced in Senegal to life in prison. He had left office and was picked up in Senegal and eventually brought to court.
You have very practical difficulties for the investigating or prosecuting. Basically, accessing the crime scene if you are investigating a crime committed by a current regime; you will not get cooperation from them. So, you would have to rely on evidence on testimonies that are outside of the country where the crimes were committed you would need to talk to insiders, talk to experts, talk to victims witnesses who are outside of the country.
Of course, for someone bringing a case for a particular victim. Another big issue is security. I mean the risk involved for yourself or your relatives who might still be in the country where the regime in question is still operating.
The time that elapses between the crimes and the moment when the investigation or the prosecution takes place is often a big challenge. Of course, with such a passing of time well sometimes the perpetrators die, sometimes the witnesses or the victims are not there anymore to testify in in court. And memory fades also, I mean testimonies who rely on accuracy, sometimes are difficult to obtain uh when there’s so much that has happened since the crimes were committed so yeah time is really one of those issues.
Also, that are very important and then you have all the obstacles linked to the unwillingness of the state to prosecute. It’s always easier of course to go after small fishes from a small country with whom you don’t have any particular ties. It’s much more difficult to go after the big guys from a powerful state that’s why also you don’t see maybe a lot of prosecutions or investigations of crimes committed by the US or by Israel or by China or Russia or other powerful states.