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.


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.

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