The Prime Minister recently committed the UK’s support to achieving justice in respect of the war crimes allegations arising out of the Ukraine conflict. The conflict and associated allegations raise questions over the UK’s commitment and ability to bring prosecutions under the doctrine of “universal jurisdiction”. Universal jurisdiction describes the jurisdiction that is available in the national courts of many countries to prosecute individuals for the most serious international crimes, even if those crimes occurred abroad and neither the defendants nor victims have any connection to that country. Why only a few such prosecutions have taken place in the UK will be the topic of one of two panel discussions at Kingsley Napley’s Cross Border Criminal Law Conference on 5 May 2022.

Some countries exercise universal jurisdiction with more enthusiasm and effectiveness than others. A recent review of universal jurisdiction cases published by Trial International, reported that in 2021, 125 international criminal charges were brought under universal jurisdiction, in 16 countries, including 34 charges for war crimes, 66 for crimes against humanity, 25 for genocide. Additionally the report identified more than 100 further individuals currently under investigation for war crimes related offences. Particularly active jurisdictions include France, Germany, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

Despite the totemic nature of the Pinochet case, the UK’s record in prosecuting international crime before its courts is not good. There are a number of criminal offences relating to war crimes to which universal jurisdiction can be applied but to date only a handful of such cases have been brought, most of them involving charges of torture under the Criminal Justice Act 1988. There are various reasons for this limited number, both legal and structural. The panel at Kingsley Napley’s conference, comprising practitioners and academics, will explore these reasons and debate how the UK can play its part more effectively in tackling impunity for international crime.

The conference will open with a keynote address by Philippe Sands QC. Philippe is a well-known barrister, academic and author specialising in international humanitarian law. His award winning 2016 book, East West Street, describes the development of this area of law in the aftermath of the second world war, while his next book will focus on the Pinochet case in which he was directly involved. He has recently chaired an independent panel of experts, convened by the Stop Ecocide Foundation, to draft a legal definition for a new international crime of ecocide.

The first panel debate will reflect on the 20 years since the Pinochet case and discuss the current state of universal jurisdiction in the UK. The second panel will focus on the increasing scrutiny faced by companies and discuss corporate complicity in human rights violations and international crimes.