Jurists announce "Princeton Principles"

July 23, 2001 10:08 a.m.

Leading jurists and legal experts today announced principles to guide the prosecution of war crimes and other serious crimes under international law when there are no traditional jurisdictional links to the victims or perpetrators. If adopted by governments around the world, the principles would go far to bring war criminals to justice.

The Princeton Principles on Universal Jurisdiction aim to clarify an increasingly important area of international criminal law - one that played a prominent role in the legal proceedings against former Chilean leader Augusto Pinochet in London and in the recent convictions of two Rwandan nuns in Belgium. The principles are being distributed to government officials, judges and legislators around the world as a resource for those seeking to extend international justice.

"The principle of universal jurisdiction is based on the notion that certain crimes are so harmful to international interests that states are entitled - and even obliged - to bring proceedings against the perpetrator, regardless of the location of the crime or the nationality of the perpetrator or victim," said Mary Robinson, U.N. high commissioner for human rights, in her forward to the Princeton Principles.

Crimes covered by these 14 principles include piracy, slavery, war crimes, crimes against peace, crimes against humanity, genocide and torture.

The principles are intended to legitimize the controversial idea that ordinary national courts should be able to hear charges against anyone found within their jurisdiction who is alleged to have committed a serious crime under international law. "Universal jurisdiction is a potent weapon," said Princeton University professor Stephen Macedo, chairman of the project that developed the guidelines. "It would cast all the world's courts as a net to catch alleged perpetrators of serious crimes under international law."

There are now no adequate means to ensure that those charged with international crimes will be held accountable, Macedo said. Ad hoc international tribunals have limited mandates. The International Criminal Court may not open for years, and its resources and capacities will be limited. Enlisting national courts in the quest for international justice is therefore crucial, he said.

The Princeton Principles aim to fill the gap. Among them:

7 Once out of office, government officials - including heads of state - should not be immune from prosecution based on the defense that they were acting in an official capacity.

7 There should be no statute of limitations on the prosecution of these crimes.

7 A state should refuse to extradite an alleged perpetrator when that person is likely to face the death penalty or any cruel, degrading or inhuman punishment, or would face sham proceedings with no assurance of due process.

7 Blanket amnesties generally are inconsistent with a nation's obligation to hold individuals accountable for these crimes.

The principles "are the most serious attempt ever made to guide national courts in meeting the challenge of crimes of state," said Richard Falk, a Princeton emeritus professor and renowned legal expert. "They give judges around the world a mandate to enforce global law in the face of crimes against humanity."

The principles are the result of the year-long Princeton Project on Universal Jurisdiction and mark the first systematic effort to bring order to this significant and growing area of international law. Participants believe the principles can promote greater accountability for those accused of heinous crimes while reducing the risk of uneven justice.

Participants in the project included Lloyd Axworthy, former foreign minister of Canada and director of the Liu Centre for the Study of Global Issues at the University of British Columbia; M. Cherif Bassiouni, president of the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul College and chairman of the drafting committee for the diplomatic conference establishing the International Criminal Court; William J. Butler, president of the American Association for the International Commission of Jurists; Hans Corell, undersecretary general for legal affairs at the United Nations; Diane F. Orentlicher, director of the War Crimes Research Office at American University; and Stephen M. Schwebel, former president of the International Court of Justice.

The Princeton Project on Universal Jurisdiction is sponsored by the Program in Law and Public Affairs and the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University; the International Commission of Jurists; the American Association for the International Commission of Jurists; the Netherlands Institute of Human Rights and the Urban Morgan Institute for Human Rights.

"I welcome the initiative of the Princeton Project," said Robinson, the U.N. high commissioner, "and trust that the wide dissemination of these principles will play a positive role in developing and clarifying the principle of universal jurisdiction."

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601