Spanish Court Will Hear Appeal To Investigate Hu Jintao For Alleged Genocide in Tibet

Spain’s National Court has agreed to hear an appeal by two Spanish pro-Tibetan activist groups to include China’s former President Hu Jintao in an investigation concerning potential genocide in Tibet. The Tibetan Support Committee, based in Madrid, believes that Hu Jintao engaged in actions “aimed at eliminating the uniqueness and existence of Tibet as a country, imposing martial law, carrying out forced deportations, mass sterilization campaigns, [and] torture of dissidents.”

Part of the conflict concerns the time period between 1988 and 1992, when Hu Jintao was the Communist Party leader in Tibet and used Chinese troops to silence mass protests. Additionally, in 2010, the Human Rights Watch reported that Chinese officials used excessive force in responding to the 2008 Tibetan demonstrations and later tortured demonstrators in custody in violation of international law. Tibetans have been demonstrating for independence ever since China invaded the province in 1950 and assimilated it into the PRC.

The Spanish court held it has jurisdiction to decide the case because one of the activists, Tibetan monk Thubten Wangchen, is a Spanish citizen. The issue is a Chinese matter, concerning actions on Chinese soil, but Spain’s legal system recognizes the “universal justice principle,” which allows genocide suspects to be put on trial outside their home country. However, there is a requirement that at least one victim of alleged genocide must be a Spanish citizen for Spain to hold the trial there.

China has publicly criticized and denounced the Spanish court’s indictment. In a briefing, China’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, stated, “[w]e firmly oppose any country or person attempting to use this issue to interfere with China’s internal affairs.” She further characterized the case as an attempt to destroy the “extremely friendly” relationship between China and Spain.

Do you agree with the “universal justice principle?” Do you think Hu Jintao can be successfully prosecuted for genocide?

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One comment

  1. Genocide, like slavery, is a crime that offends the entire world. And, as far as international law is concerned, all states have an erga omnes obligation to refrain from all acts of genocide. Therefore, I am sympathetic to the Spanish Court’s assertion of universal jurisdiction in this case.

    In terms of jurisdiction, what Spain is doing is not novel. In fact, many domestic courts have exercised jurisdiction over crimes that were not committed within their territories; piracy is a great example. For instance, the United States has prosecuted many pirates–whose crimes were committed entirely outside the U.S.’ domestic jurisdiction–for acts of aggression on the high seas and elsewhere. Moreover, the United States Congress passed the Alien Tort Statute–providing non-citizens the right to seek a civil remedy in U.S. courts for injuries inflicted by other foreigner’s abroad–more than two hundred years ago.

    But, the United States is not the only state to exercise universal jurisdiction. In fact, it was Spain that invoked universal jurisdiction in the high-profile and controversial Pinochet case. Not only did the Spanish courts in the Pinochet case assert universal jurisdiction over the former Chilean head-of-state, but the British ruled that Pinochet was not protected by former head-of state immunity. The case was a blockbuster and unquestionably one of the most significant advances of international human rights law in history. However, the Spanish and British Courts’ decisions have been had a considerable shadow cast over them by the ICJ’s decision in DRC v. Belgium, where the ICJ held that the Belgian arrest warrant and exercise of jurisdiction over sitting DRC foreign minister, Abdulaye Yerodia Ndombasi, was a violation of international custom.

    With all that said, I do believe in the exercise of universal jurisdiction over jus cogens offenses such as genocide. Crimes like genocide are so unacceptable that jurisdiction must be exercised by a foreign state whenever the domestic state is unwilling or unable to prosecute. However, given China’s international political power, I believe that Spain’s decision is mostly a bark without any chance of a bite.

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