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No matter where the offense was committed, fugitives accused of war crimes, torture or genocide should be liable for trial in the courts of the country where they are found, according to new principles devised by a panel of international legal scholars. The Princeton Principles on Universal Jurisdiction, a result of 18 months of work, aim to clarify an increasingly important area of international law, that of universal jurisdiction. “Universal jurisdiction is a potent weapon,” said Princeton University professor Stephen Macedo, chairman of the project that developed the guidelines released Monday. “It would cast all the world’s courts as a net to catch alleged perpetrators of serious crimes under international law.” But at the same time, the principles also recognize the need for reasonable limits on prosecutions by one country against citizens of another, said panel member M. Cherif Bassiouni, president of the International Human Rights Law Institute at DePaul College of Law. For instance, the panel agreed that it’s best to prosecute criminals in the country where the offenses occurred. But they also recognized that “oftentimes there will be an unwillingness or incapacity to prosecute,” Macedo said. Crimes covered by the 14 principles include piracy, war crimes, torture, genocide, slavery, crimes against peace and crimes against humanity. There are now no adequate means to ensure that people responsible for atrocities will be held accountable, Macedo said. International tribunals such as those convened by the United Nations on Rwandan genocide and Bosnia’s ethnic cleansing have limited mandates. The new International Criminal Court, established by a 1998 treaty as the world’s first permanent war crimes tribunal and expected to begin operating as early as next year, will help fill a need, proponents say. But it will have limited resources. “National courts will always have an important role to play,” Macedo said. He cited the recent case of four Rwandans convicted in a Belgian court for their role in the 1994 ethnic massacres in their African homeland. The trial was held under a 1993 Belgian law that gives local courts jurisdiction over violations of the Geneva Convention on war crimes, no matter where they occurred. The drafters of the Princeton Principles hope to encourage other nations to adopt similar laws. The principles “are the most serious attempt ever made to guide national courts in meeting the challenge of crimes of state,” said Richard Falk, a Princeton emeritus professor and project participant. The idea of universal jurisdiction is not without pitfalls. The key issue is the one President Bush has raised in opposing ratification of the international criminal court treaty — concern that it would make U.S. soldiers and government officials vulnerable to politically motivated prosecutions. Even President Clinton, who signed the treaty, said it should not be submitted to the Senate for ratification until there were more assurances that U.S. citizens would not be subject to frivolous prosecutions. Such abuses are “a very real possibility,” Bassiouni conceded. “That is why we felt it was better to have guidelines to establish limitations on the use of universal jurisdiction.” “We don’t want to see a situation where there is a race between Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush to see who can indict the other first,” Bassiouni said. Copyright 2001 Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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