Universal Jurisdiction

, October 22, 2008

And now for the other side of universal jurisdiction.
The doctrine of universal jurisdiction pushes aside state sovereignty in order to try people for what are allegedly the “most severe human rights crimes” in any court in the world. Thus, universal jurisdiction is hailed by proponents like Human Rights Watch’s Kenneth Roth, as “the emerging system of international justice” that will “break [the] pattern of impunity” for atrocities committed by tyrants. And thus could a Spanish and then a British court seek to try former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet for his presumed complicity in murder and kidnapping carried out under his rule.
Of course, the problem has always been that universal jurisdiction means that the courtrooms are open, well, universally. Any court, anywhere, may assert its jurisdiction. Thus, rather than creating a “system of international justice,” universal jurisdiction creates the chaotic situation where the judicial system of every state – no matter how human rights-abusing itself – can force a trial on any figure accused of “severe human rights violations” – no matter how bizarre and unfounded the charges.
Enter Jordan to illustrate the point.
On September 10th Elizabeth Samson reported in the Wall Street Journal Europe on Jordan’s foray into the world of universal jurisdiction. In June, Amman Prosecutor General Hassan Abdallat subpoenaed approximately 11 Europeans for the “crimes” of “insulting the Prophet,” blasphemy and demeaning Islam and Muslim feelings in violation of the Jordanian Penal Code. The alleged violations all stemmed from the “crime” of a Danish cartoonist publishing, in 2005, a number of caricatures of Mohammed. The list of summoned journalists include the cartoonist Kurt Westgaard and the publishing editors.
“Insulting the prophet” is a real crime in Jordan. In fact, in 2006, two Jordanian editors were tossed in jail for the crime after reprinting the Mohammed cartoons. And earlier this week, Jordan filed new charges against a Jordanian poet/freelancer alleged to have insulted the prophet in unspecified ways.
An organization named “The Prophet Unites Us” headed by one Zakaria al-Sheikh and made up of media outlets, professional associations, parliamentarians and thousands of volunteers is behind this new campaign. According to one account, it arose as a “civilized response” to the Mohammad cartoons’ republication in 17 Danish papers last winter. Osama Al-Bettar, a lawyer representing the group, stated that if the Danish journalists did not appear in Jordan for legal proceedings, the group would inform Interpol and demand their arrest. The Jordanian court has yet to issue an indictment, but the group and its advocates hope the case will help establish an international law against slandering religion. A Jordanian law expert told the Danish paper Politiken that actual conviction and imprisonment is feasible due to a 2006 amendment to the Jordanian Justice Act stating that its courts have jurisdiction over crimes that affect Jordanian citizens by electronic media. Jordanian law prohibits insulting any “prophet” (that would include Jesus, as well).
State Prosecutor Hassan Abdulat heard witnesses on the 21st of April and decided to push the case forward. Reportedly, he will ask the Danish embassy in Amman to aid in contacting the Danes and having them brought before the Jordanian court.
Luckily, deportation for crimes unpunishable in Denmark as in the case with the Mohammed Cartoons is not part of Danish foreign ministrypolicy, nor does it seem that any western country will heed to Jordan’s extradition request. The case might be different though if the summoned journalists were to visit other countries, more sympathetic to Jordan’s court.
Just as a matter of fact, the journalists were subpoenaed just one day after 6 people were killed in the bombing of the Danish embassy in Pakistan .The attack was apparently in reprisal for the reprinting of the cartoons.
And what do the champions of universal jurisdiction, like Kenneth Roth, have to say about this use of universal jurisdiction to trample free speech rights? To date, silence.

About Abraham Bell

Dr. Avi Bell of the Faculty of Law of Bar-Ilan University is currently a visiting professor at the University of San Diego. He specializes in international law, particularly the laws of war. Dr. Bell served in an IDF reserve paratrooper brigade in combat in the Second Lebanon war.