Spain’s Human-Rights Dilemma

NEW YORK – Spanish MPs want to legislate restraints that would prevent a few of the country’s judges from exercising what has seemed like a roving license to prosecute in Spanish courts human-rights violations committed anywhere in the world. In a current case, a Spanish judge is seeking arrest warrants against Jiang Zemin, the former president of China, and Li Peng, a former Chinese prime minister, for alleged crimes committed in Tibet. There is no discernible Spanish connection to the case.

The Spanish MPs have a point: Allowing the country’s prosecuting magistrates to select targets from anywhere in the world, without there being a clear legal nexus to Spain, is an invitation to politicize the process.

But it is also important to preserve the core principle underlying these prosecutions: the concept of universal jurisdiction. Indeed, it is a concept with ancient origins, and it plays a crucial role in the global protection of human rights.

Universal jurisdiction originated in Greek and Roman times in the struggle against piracy. Because pirates committed their crimes on the high seas, beyond the territory of any state, the idea developed that they were enemies of humanity whom any state could prosecute.