Universal Jurisdiction Annual Review: Highlights in 2023


TRIAL International, in collaboration with Civitas Maxima, the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA), the European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights (ECCHR), the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) and REDRESS, has published the 2024 edition of the Universal Jurisdiction Annual Review (UJAR) today. Now in its tenth edition, over the years, the UJAR has continued to showcase the increasingly important role of universal jurisdiction in the fight against impunity. With 36 new investigations opened in 2023 and 16 convictions, the past year confirms this positive trend.

However, as noted in this year’s introductory article, the use of this crucial prosecuting tool is not expanding evenly across countries. Despite the incorporation of provisions related to international crimes in the legal frameworks of the majority of countries worldwide, only 13 domestic jurisdictions currently have open extraterritorial cases. As long as cases continue to be concentrated in a few specific jurisdictions, the truly universal nature and potential impact of universal jurisdiction will remain unexploited.

As highlighted in previous editions of the UJAR, the practice of universal jurisdiction faces numerous challenges. Civil society organizations’ (CSOs) litigation efforts have been instrumental to overcome these and allow for such an important expansion. In 2023, CSOs have been involved in legal proceedings in over 56% of the ongoing cases, by filing complaints, collaborating with or providing information to prosecuting authorities, providing support to the plaintiffs and participating as civil parties.

Thanks to the collaboration between CSOs and prosecution authorities, universal and extraterritorial jurisdiction has played a pivotal role in addressing crimes committed in Syria. The UJAR 2024 includes 49 cases underway in nine prosecuting countries for international crimes committed in Syria and bordering Iraq since 2011. Efforts to hold the Syrian regime accountable are not only numerous, but also significant considering the rank of the suspects targeted: in November 2023, the French war crimes unit issued an international arrest warrant against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.

The past year has also shown the need for timely justice and the extent to which prolonged delays can hinder the likelihood of arrests, indictments and trials. This has been the case in the procedure, summarized in the review, against former Syrian vice-president Rifaat al-Assad, whose international arrest warrant was issued 10 years after the criminal complaint filed against him in Switzerland. Only a month before the warrant, he had ended his exile and returned to Syria, where the arm of justice will unlikely be long enough to reach him. In addition, protracted procedures bear the risk of “biological impunity” due to the advancing age, failing health and eventual death of suspects, witnesses and victims, when prosecutions are carried out decades after the crimes took place, as it recently happened in France, Germany and Switzerland.

About the UJAR 2024

The UJAR 2023 was authored by Shoshana Levy. It has been produced with the financial support of the City of Geneva, the European Union, Oak Foundation and the Taiwan Foundation for Democracy. The contents of the document are the sole responsibility of TRIAL International and can under no circumstances be regarded as reflecting the position of the above-mentioned donors.