Global reach of Spain's courts curtailed
Spanish parliament passes law to limit judges from taking cases of torture or war crimes in other countries. Is this a blow for universal justice?
Spanish courts, the last holdout for trying crimes committed anywhere in the world, will now limit their reach in the wake of a vote in Madrid's lower house of parliament today.Skip to next paragraph
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Spain has long been a champion of prosecuting heinous crimes under a concept known as "universal jurisdiction." It brought charges against Osama bin Laden and Gen. Augusto Pinochet of Chile. This spring, a Spanish judge opened an investigation into torture at Guantánamo, including a focus on leading officials within the Bush administration.
But Spain is now following an international legal trend away from allowing national courts to try anyone, anywhere, analysts say. Courts in France, Finland, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany have also seen their forays into global justice curtailed.
Under the new law, expected to quickly pass in Spain's senate, the nation is narrowing its legal mandate. Although a wide variety of cases that originate overseas may still be brought, they must involve grievances that include a Spanish citizen.
The move may give some wider latitude to the relatively young International Criminal Court (ICC) in The Hague, legal experts say, though this is disputed. Currently the ICC indictments and trials are drawn mostly from cases of genocide or war crimes in Africa.
A loss for human rights groups?
Human rights groups lamented today's vote. They have prized Spain for stepping into the vacuum by accepting cases involving war crimes, inhumane policies, and injustice elsewhere when other nations are unlikely – or refuse – to investigate.
Spanish courts, most famously under criminal court Judge Baltasar Garzón, have launched investigations into civilian bombings in Gaza, Chinese mistreatment of Tibetans, and genocide in Rwanda and Guatemala. Such cases already open will be "grandfathered" under the new law – and will continue.
While the Guantánamo torture allegation case in Spain involves one Spanish national, the challenge against the Bush administration legal team does not. It is unclear whether that case will continue.