openDemocracyUK

Wriggle room over war crimes

Chaminda Jayanetti
22 February 2010

Britain’s Foreign Office has said that any changes it makes to its rules on universal jurisdiction “will not lessen” its ability to bring war criminals to justice - but has allowed itself plenty of room to manoeuvre. 

The Israeli government has been lobbying the British government to change the rules on universal jurisdiction, which allow British courts to issue arrest warrants for those suspected of perpetrating war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide in other countries. 

In a letter to parliamentarians campaigning against changes to the rule on universal jurisdiction, Foreign Office minister Ivan Lewis said:

We are looking currently at how to address this issue. I can assure you, however, that any amendment to the current system will not lessen our ability to bring war criminals to justice.

Lewis’ letter added:

It is essential for the UK’s foreign policy priorities that leaders from other countries should be able to visit the UK and have a proper dialogue with the UK government.

For example, the UK cannot hope to advance its goal of achieving a just and lasting two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict if it cannot host discussions with and between leaders from the key regional states.

It is not clear from the letter precisely what changes the government is proposing, although there has been speculation that the Attorney-General could be given an effective veto over the issuing of arrest warrants.

Samosa

The wording of the letter also does not specify how the British government would define “war criminals”, or what it would consider an adequate route for bringing them to “justice” - and avoids the question of whether the government would actually decide to use its ability to bring war criminals to justice in the context of Palestine.

Nor is it apparent whether changes would affect only Israelis, or could also apply to senior Hamas officials or figures from other conflicts such as Darfur. Serving government ministers enjoy diplomatic immunity from prosecution when visiting other countries, but former officials generally do not. 

Lewis’ letter is dated 10th February – before the recent row over the use of British passports in the suspected Israeli assassination of a key Hamas operative in Dubai. The Dubai incident has chilled relations between the UK and Israeli governments, potentially jeopardising the chances of Britain changing the rules on universal jurisdiction before the election.

The rule on universal jurisdiction has led to warrants being granted for the arrest of senior Israeli officials and generals, most recently the country’s opposition leader and former foreign minister Tzipi Livni in relation to the 2008-9 campaign in Gaza. In each case, the subject of the warrant avoided setting foot in the UK as a result.

Who's getting rich from COVID-19?

Boris Johnson's government stands accused of 'COVID cronyism', after handing out staggering sums of money to controversial private firms to fight COVID-19. Often the terms of these deals are kept secret, with no value-for-money checks or penalties for repeated failures which cost lives. And many major contracts have gone directly to key Tory donors and allies – without competition.

As COVID rates across the country surge, how can we hold our leaders accountable? Meet the lawyers, journalists and politicians leading the charge in our free live discussion on Thursday 1 October at 5pm UK time.

Hear from:

Dawn Butler Labour MP for Brent Central and member of the House of Commons Committee on Science and Technology

Peter Geoghegan Investigations editor, openDemocracy, and author of 'Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics'

Jolyon Maugham Barrister and founder of the Good Law Project.

Peter Smith Procurement expert and author of 'Bad Buying: How Organisations Waste Billions through Failures, Frauds and F*ck-ups'

Chair: Mary Fitzgerald Editor-in-chief of openDemocracy

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.

Comments

We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData