Thanks to China, Spain’s Days as the World’s Top Prosecutor Are Coming to an End

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Feb. 13 2014 12:30 PM

Spain: No Longer the Judges of the World

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Jiang Zemin and Li Peng won't be seeing the inside of a Spanish courtroom any time soon.

Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

For years, Spain’s judicial system has been at the forefront of the notion of “universal jurisdiction”—the idea that charges can be brought against individuals outside a country’s territory for crimes like genocide and torture. The doctrine was applied most famously to former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and most controversially to officials from the Israeli government and the Bush administration.

Joshua Keating Joshua Keating

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. 

But the practice may be coming to an end, thanks to—surprise, surprise—China.  

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A Spanish high-court judge issued an arrest warrant last week for former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, former Prime Minister Li Peng, and three other officials on charges of genocide in Tibet. For a flavor of the reaction this has provoked in China, see this typically florid editorial from the Global Times that describes the judge, Ismael Moreno, as “a blunderer who lacks the fundamental concepts of international politics” and “more ludicrous than but not as innocent as Don Quixote.”

Chinese diplomats are pressuring the Spanish government to drop the charges, and the governing Popular Party has now put forward legislation to severely limit the law’s applicability.

While this may be the final nail in the coffin, Spain has been chipping away at universal jurisdiction for a while. The doctrine has been something a political headache for Spanish politicians.

 The government pressured Baltasar Garzon, the judge who brought the charges against Pinochet, to drop charges against U.S. officials over torture at Guantanamo Bay in 2006. Garzon was eventually barred from the judiciary for illegally ordering wiretaps during an investigation into abuses committed during the Spanish Civil War and the Francisco Franco dictatorship. Garzon’s supporters then tried to get around the disbarment by filing similar charges from a court in Argentina. 

It’s also important to remember that even universal jurisdiction’s most celebrated case—the Pinochet warrant—didn’t actually result in a trial in Spain, though the former strongman did eventually face trial in Chile.

The Spanish court system’s days as judges of the world may be coming to an end, but the country was something of a trend-setter. In France, for instance, a suspect accused of involvement in the 1994 Rwandan genocide is currently on trial thanks to a universal jurisdiction law passed in 2010. Similar trials have been held in Germany.

But the charge, often leveled by critics, that only accused war criminals from small, weak countries ever find themselves of the receiving end of these prosecutions is still quite valid.