Statement on Agenda Item 84: The Scope and Application of the Principle of Universal Jurisdiction, in the Sixth Committee of the General Assembly

Honorable Wellington Webb, Senior Advisor
New York, NY
October 21, 2009


Mr. Chairman, we welcome the opportunity to provide our views on this agenda item and to learn about the views of other Member States. 

From the outset, we wish to note that the definition of “universal jurisdiction” remains unsettled, and we expect that Member States may have differing views about the meaning of this term.  Given this, we think our initial discussion in this Committee will likely raise more questions than answers about the scope and application of this principle under international law.

For purposes of this discussion, the United States understands universal jurisdiction to refer to the assertion of criminal jurisdiction by a State, for certain grave offenses, where the State’s only link to the particular crime is the presence in its territory of the alleged offender.  Under this principle, jurisdiction would be established regardless of where the offense took place, the nationality of either the victim or the perpetrator, or the effect of the crime on the State exercising jurisdiction.

Some criminal conduct comes within the scope of international conventions, such as the UN Convention Against Torture, that expressly authorize parties to assert criminal jurisdiction under the circumstances covered by the convention. 

In the view of the United States, it would be beneficial to exchange information about the practice of Member States with regard to the assertion of universal jurisdiction.  Under U.S. law, federal courts are empowered to assert jurisdiction over crimes of serious international concern – such as piracy, torture, genocide, and various crimes covered by the counterterrorism conventions – even in the absence of a significant U.S. nexus to the underlying criminal acts.  Typically, U.S. courts are empowered to exercise such jurisdiction only where the alleged perpetrator is physically present in the United States. 

We would be interested to learn more about how other Member States define the term “universal jurisdiction,” and how they have empowered their own domestic courts to exercise universal jurisdiction – for which crimes and under what circumstances.  We believe that gathering such information is necessary prior to any further consideration of this topic.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman. 


PRN: 2009/229