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?
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Spain bowed to US pressureSkip to next paragraph
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The Obama administration has been chary in support of efforts to prosecute previous White House officials in what could devolve into very ugly partisan fights. Human rights groups indirectly charged Spain with bending to US pressure. A joint press release from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the UGT trade union stated, "Spain is more concerned with not offending some powerful governments than with ending the impunity that criminals benefit from."
Mark Ellis, executive director of the International Bar Association in London, says the application of "universal jurisdiction" is shifting from an absolute concept personified by Spain, to a more conditional reading. He argues it may be a needed adjustment, given the hard political dynamics in and around nations that argue for state sovereignty. But in the long run the change may be salutary.
"I saw this coming," Mr. Ellis says. "This doesn't eliminate the concept of universal jurisdiction, required under the Geneva Convention, but it is evolving with provisions. If every state fully pursued absolute universal jurisdiction this would be very chaotic, bring unintended consequences, and might weaken international law, including the role of the ICC."
Many advocates for international justice argue that institutions such as the ICC were inconceivable a decade or so ago. They marvel at the growing string of indictments of leaders, such as Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, and cases against leaders such as Bosnian Serb Radovan Karadzic. Many agree with President Obama, quoting Martin Luther King Jr., that "the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."
Yet many also argue that Spain's open courts were a warning to leaders of powerful as well as less-powerful states that international justice should apply equally.
Richard Dicker, of Human Rights Watch in New York, says that the new law is "an unfortunate step backwards for Spain, but more seriously for victims who look to Spanish courts for redress. National courts using universal jurisdiction are an important part of holding to account those who may be responsible for heinous crimes."