Statement by Gabriel Swiney, Attorney Adviser, U.S. Department of State, on Agenda Item 86: The Scope and Application of the Principle of Universal Jurisdiction, in the Sixth Committee

Gabriel Swiney, Attorney Adviser, U.S. Department of State
New York, NY
October 13, 2010


Thank you, Madame Chairperson.

We greatly appreciate the Sixth Committee’s continued interest in this important item. We thank the Secretary-General for his report (A/65/181), which usefully summarized the submissions made by States on this topic.

The United States submitted information and views on universal jurisdiction, so we will refrain from making a very detailed statement now. As explained in our submission, 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 only link to the particular crime is the presence in its territory of the alleged offender. Various federal criminal statutes provide U.S. courts with this type of jurisdiction over certain serious offenses, such as piracy, genocide, torture, and terrorism-related offenses. As we indicated in our submission, although U.S. prosecutions based solely on the principle of universal jurisdiction without any other U.S. nexus are rare, the United States believes that such jurisdiction, when prudently applied, with appropriate safeguards against inappropriate application, and with due consideration for the jurisdiction of other States, can be an important tool for ensuring that perpetrators of the most serious crimes are brought to justice.

The issue of universal jurisdiction is a complicated one. So long as we are faced with problems such as piracy, genocide, and crimes against humanity, universal jurisdiction remains relevant. Yet despite the importance of this issue and its long history as part of international law, basic questions remain about universal jurisdiction and States’ views and practices related to the topic. The submissions made by States to date and the Secretary-General’s report are extremely useful in helping us to identify whether there are differences of opinion among States and, if so, where these areas of uncertainty lie.

Beyond the question of definition – what do we mean when we refer to “universal jurisdiction”? – other questions include the appropriate scope of the principle, its relationship to treaty-based obligations, and the need to ensure that decisions to invoke it are undertaken in an appropriate manner, including in cases where there are other States that may exercise jurisdiction. The practical application of universal jurisdiction also differs among countries, such as how often it is invoked, whether alternative bases of jurisdiction are relied upon at the same time, and what safeguards are available to prevent inappropriate prosecutions.

These areas warrant additional examination and discussion. We are particularly pleased that the information and observations provided by Member States to date in response to paragraph 1 of resolution 64/117 have now been posted on the UN web site. We have begun to review these submissions and believe that they provide very useful insights into the perspectives and practices of those States that have submitted them. While we welcome the submissions made to date, a majority of States, from many regions of the world, has not yet responded, and we would encourage States that have not yet done so to consider making such submissions as an important contribution to a greater appreciation of the range of practices and views on this issue. We look forward to exploring these issues in as practical a manner as possible.

Thank you, Madame Chairperson.


PRN: 2010/227