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International Attorney Discusses Challenges of Universal Jurisdiction

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How should nations respond when an accepted method of international justice instead becomes a political tool?
An audience at the Columbus School of Law was invited to ponder the question by Irit Kohn, president of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists and former director of the International Affairs Department, Israeli Ministry of Justice.
Kohn’s April 15 remarks, “Universal Jurisdiction: A Challenge for International Law,” traced the history and difficulties with the doctrine of universal jurisdiction, first used in international law for crimes such as piracy.
Universal jurisdiction permits states to claim criminal jurisdiction over an accused person regardless of where the alleged crime was committed, and regardless of the accused's nationality, country of residence, or any other relation with the prosecuting entity, on the theory that some crimes are too serious to tolerate jurisdictional boundaries.
“Some crimes are so hideous the world agrees the perpetrators must be punished,” explained Kohn.
Since World War II, universal jurisdiction has been invoked as a response to international crimes like genocide. But in recent years, there has been a view that the doctrine may have been abused for political purposes.
Kohn outlined the case of Ariel Sharon, the former prime minister of Israel who as the nation’s defense minister in 1982, failed to take steps to stop the slaughter of thousands of civilians living in the Sabra and Shatila Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut, Lebanon. The Israel Defense Forces did not partake in the massacre, but it did control access to the area around the camps at the time.
For nearly 20 years afterward, the nation of Belgium pursued a complicated legal battle to have Sharon and other Israelis and some Lebanese as war criminals. In the end, the effort failed.
While not exonerating Sharon, Kohn argued that the application of the doctrine of universal jurisdiction in that case began a troubling pattern of using it to settle political scores, rather than bring perpetrators to justice.