Spanish Lawmakers Should Reject Proposal Aimed at Closing the Door on Justice for the Most Serious Crimes

Press release
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Proposed Bill Limits Spanish Jurisdiction over International Crimes and Would Breach Key International Treaties

Open Letter to Spanish Parliamentarians

Lawmakers from Spain’s Popular Party are fast-tracking a bill that would limit Spanish courts’ ability to investigate and prosecute serious crimes under international law. The new proposal to reform the country’s universal jurisdiction laws would put Spain in breach of its international obligations and offer the prospect of impunity to many responsible for serious crimes.

The Popular Party seeks to justify the proposed changes by alleging that the country’s current universal jurisdiction laws are being overused or misused. If enacted, however, the proposed bill would close the doors of Spanish courts to the victims of grave human rights violations who are unlikely otherwise to be able to obtain justice, particularly within their own jurisdictions.

The principle of universal jurisdiction allows national courts to try cases of the most serious crimes regardless of where they were committed and the nationality of the perpetrator and/or the victim. These crimes include genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, torture and enforced disappearance. The consensus of the international community is very clear: these crimes shock the conscience of humanity and must be punished, and it is the duty of all states to investigate and prosecute those responsible for these crimes.

The proposed bill introduces an extensive and complex set of requirements that must be met before Spanish courts can assert jurisdiction over these crimes.

In particular the bill provides that, for cases involving allegations of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes to be investigated and prosecuted in Spain, the suspect must either be a Spanish national or a foreigner habitually resident in Spain or a foreigner who is in Spain, whose extradition has been denied by Spanish authorities. For torture and enforced disappearance, the proposed bill requires that the suspect be a Spanish national or, alternatively, that the victim be a Spanish national at the time when the crime was committed and that the suspect is present in Spain. Where these conditions are not met, the proposal allows Spanish courts to prosecute those crimes that are required by international treaties where the suspect is a foreigner on Spanish soil so long as Spain has received and denied an extradition request.

If enacted, the bill would place Spain in breach of its international law obligations and would be a devastating blow to Spain’s commitment to ensuring accountability for the worst crimes

International Legal Background

The international community has determined that certain crimes, including war crimes, torture, enforced disappearance, are so egregious that all states have a duty either to investigate and prosecute or to extradite any person found on their soil who is suspected of these crimes. At least six key international treaties enshrine the principle of “prosecute or extradite” (aut dedere aut judicare).

For example, the Geneva Conventions state that “Each High Contracting Party shall be under the obligation to search for persons alleged to have committed, or to have ordered to be committed, such grave breaches [i.e. war crimes], and shall bring such persons, regardless of their nationality, before its own courts.” The Rome Statute also emphasizes the important role that states should play in ensuring accountability, providing that the International Criminal Court “shall be complementary to national criminal jurisdictions” and that “it is the duty of every State to exercise its criminal jurisdiction over those responsible for international crimes.” Neither of these treaties, nor any of the other international treaties which concern the obligation to “prosecute or extradite,” supports limiting prosecutions for serious international crimes to alleged perpetrators of particular nationalities or to cases in which an extradition request has been lodged and denied. [1] The proposed bill does just this: it places restrictions on when prosecutions of certain crimes can take place.

In examining this obligation with respect to the Convention against Torture, the International Court of Justice explained in the 2012 case of Belgium v. Senegal, “prosecution is an international obligation under the Convention, the violation of which is a wrongful act engaging the responsibility of the State.” [2] The court further held that the state is required “to submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution, irrespective of the existence of a prior request for the extradition of the suspect.” [3] This means that once Spain becomes aware that a person suspected of these crimes is present on its territory, it must take steps to prosecute—unless it chooses to extradite the suspect to another state or surrender that person to an international criminal court.

The draft bill applies not only to future investigations but also to current investigations, meaning that all current cases on the basis of universal jurisdiction will be closed until it can be proven that they comply with the new requirements. This is at odds with Spain’s duty to carry out effective investigations and prosecutions for these crimes. Furthermore, it may go beyond the legislative authority of Parliament by summarily closing all the investigations. It could also interfere with the independence of the judicial system. Any decision to close a case should be taken by the courts on a case-by-case basis.

The legal restrictions contained in the bill put Spain at risk. First, they violate their international law obligations and flout the International Court of Justice decision on the duty to “prosecute or extradite.” Consequently, the bill would expose Spain to being brought before the International Court of Justice, the U.N. Committee against Torture, and the U.N. Committee on Enforced Disappearances. Second—and at a more basic level—the bill would damage Spain’s international reputation and make it an outlier in European Union Member States’ common fight against impunity for international crimes.

When Spain ratified international treaties, it affirmed its legal commitment to be bound to deny safe haven to perpetrators of the world’s most serious crimes and to fulfill its obligation to investigate and prosecute suspects of these crimes. We urge Spain to uphold these commitments and ensure that any reforms to its universal jurisdiction laws are consistent with international law.

The signatory organizations will continue to support the cause of justice for all victims of crimes under international law. Spain must respect the legality of its international obligations and be sensitive to the needs of victims. In the world’s struggle to end mass atrocities, Spain was once at the vanguard. We must not let it fall behind.

  1. Addameer Prisoner Support and Human Rights Association - Palestine
  2. ADHOC, Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association – Cambodia
  3. AEDH, Association Européenne pour la Défense des Droits de l’Homme
  4. AEDIDH, Asociación Española por el Derecho Internacional de los Derechos Humanos
  5. AI, Amnistía Internacional
  6. Al-Haq - OPT
  7. Al Mezan Center for Human Rights - Palestine
  8. ALTSEAN-Burma , Alternative ASEAN Network on Burma - Burma
  9. ANUE, Asociación para las Naciones Unidas en España
  10. APDHA, Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos de Andalucía
  11. APDHE, Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos de España
  12. APRODEH, Asociación Pro Derechos Humanos - Peru
  13. Asociación de Mujeres Gitanas “Alboreá”
  14. Asociación por la Recuperación e Investigación Contra el Olvido
  15. Asociación Unidad Cívica por la República
  16. Asociación Watani para La Libertad y la Justicia
  18. Associació Memòria de Mallorca
  19. Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies – Egypt
  20. CAJ, Comité de Acción Jurídica - Argentina
  21. CALDH, Centro para la Acción Legal en Derechos Humanos - Guatemala
  22. CAT, Comité de Apoyo al Tíbet
  23. CAUM, Club de Amigos de la Unesco de Madrid
  24. CCHR, Civic Committee for Human Rights, Croacia
  25. CCIJ, Canadian Centre for International Justice
  26. CCR, Center for Constitutional Rights
  27. CCS, Centro de Capacitación Social – Panama
  28. CDHG, Comision de Derechos Humanos de Guatemala
  29. CDHU, Comisión Ecumenica de Derechos Humanos
  30. CEAR, Comisión Española de Ayuda al Refugiado
  31. CEAS-Sáhara, Coordinadora Estatal de Asociaciones Solidarias con el Sáhara
  32. CEDAL, Centro de Derechos y Desarrollo – Peru
  33. CEDH, Centre Oecuménique des Droits Humains - Haïti
  34. CELS, Centro de Estudios Legales y Sociales - Argentina
  35. CGT, Confederación General del Trabajo
  36. CIPRODEH, Centro de Investigación y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos de Honduras
  37. Civil Society Institute – Armenia
  38. CJA, Center for Justice & Accountability
  39. CMDPDH, Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos – Mexico
  40. COFADEH, Comité de Familiares de Detenidos-Desaparecidos en Honduras
  41. Colectivo de Abogados "José Alvear Restrepo" - Colombia
  42. Comisión de Libertades e Informática
  43. Comisión General de Justicia y Paz
  44. Comisión Mexicana de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos
  45. Comisión Nacional de los Derechos Humanos - Dominican Republic
  46. Comisión pola Recuperación da Memoria Histórica da Coruña
  47. Comité Permanente por la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos - Colombia
  48. Coordinadora para la memoria histórica y democrática de Madrid
  49. Corporacion Yurupari – Colombia
  50. Defence for Children International - Palestine section
  51. ECCHR, European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights
  52. EGJustice
  53. Federación de Asociaciones de Defensa y Promoción de los Derechos Humanos, España
  54. Federació Catalana d’ONG per la Pau, els Drets Humans i el Desenvolupament
  55. Federación Estatal de FELGTB
  56. Federación Estatal de Foros por la Memoria
  57. FIACAT, Federación International de la Acción de los Cristianos para la Abolición de la Tortura
  58. FIBGAR, Fundación Internacional Baltasar Garzón
  59. FIDH, International Federation for Human Rights
  60. FLHR, Finnish League for Human Rights, Finland
  61. FONGDCAM, Coordinadora de ONG de Desarrollo de la Comunidad de Madrid
  62. Foro por la memoria
  63. Fundació Casa del Tibet
  64. Fundación Abogacía Española
  65. Fundación Andreu Nin
  66. Fundación CIVES, España
  67. Fundación Cultura de Paz
  68. Fundación Seminario de Investigación para la Paz de Zaragoza
  69. FundiPau, Fundació per la Pau
  70. Goldatu Sozio-kultural Elkartea
  71. HLHR, Hellenic League for Human Rights – Greece
  72. HRCP, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan - Pakistan
  73. HRW, Human Rights Watch
  74. Human Rights Movement "Bir Duino-Kyrgyzstan" - Kyrgyzstan
  75. ICID, Iniciativas de Cooperacion Internacional para el Desarrollo
  76. ICJ, International Commission of Jurists
  77. ICT, International Campaign for Tibet
  78. IDHC, Institut de Drets Humans de Catalunya
  79. IEPALA, Instituto de Estudios Políticos para América Latina y África
  80. ILMR, Internationale Liga für Menschenrechte / International League for Human Rights, Germany
  81. ILSA, Instituto Latinoamericano para una sociedad y un Derecho Alternativos - Colombia
  82. INREDH, Fundación Regional de Asesoria en Derechos Humanos
  83. International Human Rights Clinic, Boston University
  84. Justicia y Paz
  85. Kenya Human Rights Commission - Kenya
  86. La Comision Ecumenica de Derechos Humanos, Ecuador
  87. Latvian Human Rights Committee, Latvia
  88. LAW, Lawyers against the War
  89. Lawyers Without Borders Canada
  90. LDDHI, League for the Defence of Human Rights in Iran - Iran
  91. LDH, Ligue des Droits de l’Homme – Belgium
  92. League for Human Rights (Liga voor de Rechten van de Mens - LvRM) - the Netherlands
  93. LICADHO, Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights – Cambodia
  94. LIDU onlus - Lega Italiana dei Diritti dell’Uomo – Italy
  95. Liga argentina por los derechos del hombre - Argentina
  96. Liga Española Pro Derechos Humanos
  97. Ligue des droits et libertés - Canada
  98. LMHR, Lao Movement for Human Rights - Laos
  99. Lualua Centre for Human Rights - Bahrain
  100. Movimiento contra la Intolerancia
  101. MPDL, Movimiento por la Paz
  102. Mundubat
  103. Observatori DESC
  104. Observatorio Ciudadano de Chile
  105. Odhikar - Bangladesh
  106. PAHRA, Philippine Alliance of Human Rights Advocates – Philippines
  107. Paz y Cooperación
  108. Plataforma contra la impunidad del franquismo
  109. Pozo grajero
  110. QUIT, Quaker Initiative to End Torture
  111. Ramallah Center for Human Rights Studies - Palestine
  112. Recuperación de la Memoria Histórica de Valladolid
  113. Redress
  114. RIS, Rights International Spain
  115. RNDDH, Réseau national de défense des droits humains
  116. Sección de Extranjería y Derechos Humanos del Ilustre Colegio de Abogados de Valencia
  117. Seminario Galego de Educación para a Paz
  118. TAHR, Taiwan Association for Human Rights – Taiwan
  119. Todos los niños robados son también mis niños
  120. Trial, Track Impunity Always
  121. UGT, Unión General de Trabajadores - (España)
  122. UNESCO Etxea
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