This is an important, cherished and long-established principle of international law and dates back to 19th-century efforts to combat piracy on the high seas. Numerous cases have been initiated in countries as diverse as the UK, the Netherlands and Senegal. As Human Rights Watch director Kenneth Roth said, universal jurisdiction “was also the concept that allowed Israel to try Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem in 1961.”
Prosecuting military leaders using the principle of universal jurisdiction can be difficult, but let it be a warning to the military leadership in Egypt who might today be contemplating using unlawful violence against Egyptian citizens that the principle is gaining strength across the globe.
As recently as January, police officers from Britain’s specialist Metropolitan Police unit targeting suspected war criminals and human rights abusers arrested and charged Nepalese Colonel Kumar Lama for human rights abuses committed in Nepal. At the time of his arrest Colonel Lama was working as a UN peacekeeper in the Republic of South Sudan. He was visiting the UK for a Christmas vacation.
The Arab Spring has shown us that there is huge power in being globally connected as protesters. Those in positions of military power in Egypt will be well advised to remember this when they consider how effective lawyers have become in their work to end impunity.
Egypt has for too long been treated as a client state in the cause of geopolitical struggle. Its military has been central to this and has consistently acted with impunity. It is time for governments to lead the way in bringing this to an end. The situation in Egypt must be referred to the ICC by the security council. Failing that, human rights lawyers will be waiting in courts across the world for Egypt’s military, with evidence that they have committed heinous international crimes.