Side Event – “Closing the impunity gap: a pragmatic approach to universal jurisdiction” (co-hosted by the Center for Justice and Accountability and Civitas Maxima))

Overview by Emma Bakkum, Senior Research Associate PILPG NL


  • Achieving international justice for the gravest international crimes cannot be left solely to the big institutions such as the ICC. 

  • Civil litigation cases concerning grave crimes can allow the victim to face its perpetrator, to restore a sense of balance, and can pave the way for criminal proceedings.

  • Civitas Maxima believes that victims of the gravest crimes have the right to accessible and unbiased information about the trails of alleged criminals in or outside of their country.

  • The preservation of evidence is important but can be problematic. 

Co-hosted by the Center for Justice and Accountability (CJA) and Civitas Maxima, this side event offered a refreshing discussion on pragmatic approaches to universal jurisdiction. Karim Ahmad Khan QC, Head of UN investigative team for ISIL (Da’esh) in Iraq, started the event with a speech underlining the importance of the work of Civitas Maxima and other NGOs working towards closing the impunity gap for international crimes. Khan stated that it cannot be left solely to the big institutions in international criminal justice, but that cases need to be given life by prosecutors, defense lawyers, and victim lawyers. Noting that it should not matter “who gets the glory”, he continued that burdens must be shared by the international community altogether. Wat matters is whether victims receive justice.  

This sentiment was echoed by Alain Werner, Director of Civitas Maxima. Mr. Werner dedicated his speech to explaining Civitas Maxima’s pragmatic strategy to universal jurisdiction, which has been developed over the past ten years. This strategy entails the use of extraterritorial jurisdiction with a focus on bringing justice to the place where the crimes were committed.  

Mr. Werner stated that the impact of internationalized or hybrid courts it often limited on domestic jurisdictions, referring specifically to the case of the Special Court for Sierra Leone. These courts are remote from local courts. Cases are thus often build outside of the country where the crimes occurred. Civitas Maxima aims to address this problem with a global strategy for extraterritorial cases that focuses on bringing justice to the country where the crimes were committed. Civitas Maxima has mainly focused on the “forgotten” crimes committed in Liberia. This pragmatic strategy has three components. First, Civitas Maxima worked hand in hand with local organizations in Liberia and supported local capacity building. Second, cooperation around the world with different war crimes units was very important: every tool at its disposal was useful. Thirdly, once a case is ongoing, Civitas Maxima aimed at monitoring and talking about the trial, especially in the affected country. Civitas Maxima believes that victims of the gravest crimes committed in their country have the right to accessible and unbiased information about trails of alleged criminals. They therefore incorporated creative and innovative tools involving grassroots participation of artists, film makers, and reporters. In the case of Liberia, Civitas Maxima and its sister organization in Liberia have created the Liberian Quest for Justice, a platform that provides a space for informed debate about the trials of alleged Liberian war criminals and the search for justice for victims. 

Finally, Carmen Cheung, Legal Director of the Center for Justice & Accountability (CJA) discussed her work in civil litigation before U.S. national courts as a pragmatic approach to universal jurisdiction to hold perpetrators of grave crimes accountable. She explained the U.S. Alien Tort Statute and the possibility of bringing cases concerning crimes committed in other countries under U.S. jurisdiction. These cases are litigated in the interest of the victim, and can allow the victim to face its perpetrator, to restore a sense of balance, and can pave the way for criminal proceedings. While damages will remain to be symbolic, certain jurisdictional restraints apply, and the U.S. government is limiting the scope of civil litigation in these kind of cases, civil litigation forms a pragmatic approach to accountability gaps for international crimes. 

A further topic discussed concerned the sources of evidence for universal jurisdiction cases and enquired into the role of the IIIM, investigative mechanism for Myanmar, states and civil society with regard to the preservation of evidence. Karim Khan underlined that the preservation of evidence is one the key aspects. Carmen Cheung added that CJA builds cases for civil litigation but often hands these over to prosecution teams. She mentioned furthermore that guidance may be needed for those people working on the ground in a country collecting evidence. Alain Werner finally added, referring to experience at the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia that documentation in conflict areas must be saved at all cost since that is the evidence that allows for cases to be established. Carmen Cheung added on local engagement that CJA tries to bring in local professionals and schools, for example in Liberia. 

The event ended with a discussion on the relationship between the work of the ICC and the work of Civitas Maxima. Karim Khan underlined that the bedrock of the ICC is complementarity. Mentioning the billions spent on tribunals for the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and referring to his earlier statement, the impunity gap cannot be addressed by the big institutions alone. What we need more is a view on justice that it is not politicized, but that it “is everybody’s business”. Carmen Cheung in response to the question highlighted that CJA is just as old as the ICC and was not created with the idea that the ICC would fail, but simply to respond to gaps that are expected with the creation of any international institution. Justice is multi-faceted, she concluded. Alain Werner finally concluded the event by stating that Civitas Maxima works together with the ICC and is in contact with victims. “We don’t believe in competition but in emulation.”