Buffalo Human Rights Law Review


Miriam Cohen

First Page


Document Type



In Copyright


Universal jurisdiction is a doctrine by which States can assert jurisdiction over certain clearly circumscribed offenses that occur outside their territory and without any nexus to the nationality of the victim or the alleged perpetrator. The doctrine was originally developed to address piracy that occurred on the high seas. Because piracy occurred across international borders, thus impacting international navigation and commerce, it was seen as a threat to many, if not all nations. The justification for asserting universal jurisdiction over piracy was primarily based on the locus of the crime, its effect on many States, and its alleged heinous nature. The last rationale has led to the extension of the universal jurisdiction doctrine beyond piracy to human rights offenses, such as war crimes and genocide. By expanding the jurisdictional reach of the States, universal jurisdiction operates as a tool to secure greater accountability of perpetrators. The current difficulties faced in prosecuting human trafficking offenders raises significant concerns. The low risk of prosecution coupled with the high profits trafficking generates have contributed to its rapid global expansion. In this paper, I argue that the nature of human trafficking is analogous to that of piracy, and therefore universal jurisdiction should apply. Like pirates, human traffickers often operate across international borders and the widespread impact of their activities has the potential to harm all States. Furthermore, the analogy between these two criminal enterprises is supported by the gravity of the crime rationale-a rationale that has formed the basis for expanding the universal jurisdiction doctrine to other crimes of universal concern.