International law gets teeth

April 9, 1999


The House of Lords' decision to allow the extradition of Chile's General Pinochet to Spain represents a significant advance in the acceptance of international law, says a Nottingham University law researcher.

Rob Cryer, in the third year of his doctorate, said it demonstrated how far the attitudes of national legal systems to international criminal law had changed: "Ten years ago, even international criminal lawyers would have been extremely sceptical that you could do this."

The Lords judged that the 1984 Torture Convention, adopted in British Law under the 1988 Criminal Justice Act - hence the choice of 1988 as the cut-off point for action against Pinochet - overrode any pleas that a head of state is immune from prosecution.

"It means that torture anywhere might be a criminal matter under British jurisdiction. It was a remarkably wide-ranging piece of jurisdiction to accept into national law," Cryer says.

It is only a precedent for the UK, but Cryer says. "It is likely to give other jurisdictions a boost towards accepting this. Other countries may see the way a UK court has interpreted the Torture Convention as a permissible interpretation of their own obligations."

The difficulties of the issue for a national jurisdiction, Cryer points out, were illustrated by the varying interpretations offered by the seven Law Lords. And there is a relative scarcity of case law: "As Lord Hope said, cases of this sort do not come around every day."

It does, Cryer notes, mean that Slobodan Milosevic will be even less likely to choose Britain for a holiday.

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