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The project of human rights and its enforcement through particular states and/or international criminal courts rests on claims of universal jurisdiction in the effort to protect individuals and peoples from gross violations of human dignity. From the Nuremberg trials to the Guatemalan civil war, crimes against humanity such as torture, war crimes, terrorism, and genocide have been the target of universally enforceable laws. In the last fifty years, Spain has emerged as one of the major European states supporting this project with its most high-profile case being the indictment and trial of ex-Chilean president and general, Augusto Pinochet.

On May 31st, 2011, judge Eloy Velasco of the Audencia Nacional  in Spain issued an order to process twenty Salvadoran soldiers (two of whom were defense ministers) for the terrorist assassinations of six Jesuit priests, a housekeeper and her fifteen year old daughter. Among those murdered at the Universidad Centroamericana (UCA) during the civil war of El Salvador in 1989 was Ignacio Ellacuría, the Spanish liberation theologian and president of UCA who was deeply inspired by the life of the martyred Archbishop Oscar Romero. The social concerns of Ellacuría, the priests, and the university at large were targeted because of their attempted negotiations between the government and leftist groups.

Although Spain’s use of the universal jurisdiction claim is rare, it has strong precedent in the nation’s long history. For better or for worse, it remains a legacy of Spanish legal tradition. Cases of humanitarian intervention in defending innocent civilians among foreign peoples were among those cited by Franscisco de Vitoria as falling under the jursidiction of the law of nations (ius gentium). Imperial Spain also employed universal jurisdiction through papal authority, which conceded the Spanish monarchs the territories of infidels in the New World for the purpose of preaching the Gospel.

It remains to be seen whether or not the current case of Ellacuría will be enforced by the Salvadoran government. According to a Wikileaks source from San Salvador in 2008, opponents to Spain’s exercise of universal jurisdiction come from the political right and left. The opinion at UCA, on the other hand, defends Spain’s intervention on the basis of national impunity.  Justice, on earth as it is in heaven, is the only thing that can satisfy thirsty victims.

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