UJAR 2022: Universal jurisdiction in the fight against sexual violence

© Hani Abbas

With developments seen in more than 60 cases across 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 Centre for Justice and Accountability (CJA), the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), and REDRESS, the Universal Jurisdiction Annual Review (UJAR) 2022.

Sexual and gender-based violence

While welcoming the rise of universal jurisdiction cases, this year’s Universal Jurisdiction Annual Review highlights the additional efforts needed to bring justice to victims of conflict-related sexual violence. A powerful tool to fight against impunity for international crimes, universal jurisdiction should serve as an effective legal procedure for victims of sexual violence. Unfortunately, when it comes to sexual violence, this is not yet the case in practice. Out of the 125 charges of international crimes included in the 2021 edition of this report, only 17 addressed conflict-related sexual and gender-based violence. The UJAR 2022 provides an explanation as to why and how universal jurisdiction can become a more effective instrument to bring justice to the victims and survivors of these crimes.

Universal jurisdiction: Justice beyond borders

The UJAR 2022 documents cases brought under universal jurisdiction for international crimes, including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, for which proceedings have been initiated by judges or prosecutors across the planet and which have undergone developments in 2021. In total, 125 international criminal charges were brought under universal jurisdiction, including 34 charges for war crimes, 66 for crimes against humanity, 25 for genocide. Only 17 charges were brought 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 The Gambia, domestic prosecuting authorities, thanks to universal jurisdiction, have an effective means at their disposal to ensure the accused face their actions, and thus allow the voices of the victims to be heard.

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

Giulia Soldan, head of the International Investigations and Litigation program at TRIAL International

Universal jurisdiction: An overlooked tool to fight 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 regard to the prosecution of sexual violence. After centuries of almost compete 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 cases related to universal jurisdiction included convictions for sexual 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 universal jurisdiction cases. This can be explained by several factors, including the fact that these crimes are often not integrated into investigative strategies and, when they are prosecuted, they have often been qualified as acts of torture. However, this legal qualification of sexual violence as acts of torture fails to fully reflect the implications of such violence as both a weapon of war and a deeply harmful social tactic which aims to weaken the social fabric of vulnerable communities. In addition, it should be noted that the testimonies of the victims are key to prosecuting these crimes. However, the risk of adding to the victims’ trauma and the stigmatization to which they expose themselves by testifying illustrate the need for specific training of judicial 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 a serious nature that they constitute an attack on all people and that the fight against impunity for those responsible for these crimes knows no geographical boundaries. Under this principle, States have the possibility (and sometimes even the obligation) to prosecute people accused of international crimes found on their sovereign land –wherever the crimes were committed and whatever the nationality of the perpetrators and the 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 by FIDH, TRIAL International, Civitas Maxima, CJA, ECCHR, and REDRESS.

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