Israeli diplomatic officials applauded the new Conservative British government
on Thursday for announcing plans to amend the UK’s universal jurisdiction
The government of Prime Minister David Cameron is moving on this
issue, whereas all the previous Labor government did was talk about it, the
Hague: Change universal jurisdiction law
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The British government said the planned change to the law
was designed to stop “possible abuse by people trying to obtain arrest warrants
for grave crimes on the basis of flimsy evidence to make a political statement
or to cause embarrassment.”
Announcing plans to bring forward
legislation, likely in the new session of Parliament in September, Justice
Secretary Kenneth Clarke reiterated the government’s commitment to changing the
universal jurisdiction legislation while upholding international
“Our commitment to our international obligations and to ensuring
that there is no impunity for those accused of crimes of universal jurisdiction
“It is important, however, that universal jurisdiction
cases should be proceeded within this country only on the basis of solid
evidence that is likely to lead to a successful prosecution – otherwise there is
a risk of damaging our ability to help in conflict resolution or to pursue a
coherent foreign policy,” Clarke said.
Diplomatic officials said that
Cameron, Clark and Foreign Secretary William Hague deserved credit for moving
efforts to change the law from the “theoretical to the operational
The change in the law – which currently allows private
prosecutions on charges of war crimes to be issued bymagistrates in the UK even if the alleged offense was purportedly committed
elsewhere and irrespective of nationality – will require the approval of
Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer before a warrant or summons can be
“The government has concluded, after careful consideration, that
it would be appropriate to require the consent of the director of public
prosecutions before an arrest warrant can be issued to a private prosecutor in
respect of an offence of universal jurisdiction,” Clarke said.
officials pointed out that this still had to be ratified by the House of
Commons, but that it was unlikely that the government would not be able to pass
the legislation since it was likely to get the support of a number of Labor MPs
Still, senior diplomatic officials in Jerusalem said that it was
too early to say that the new UK government has a more favorable tone toward
“Cameron is focused completely on internal issues and the
economy,” the officials said. “He is really set on setting things straight
economically, so the issue of foreign affairs has not yet been high on the
agenda. I can’t say that I’ve seen a change,” a senior official
Israeli Ambassador Ron Prosor characterized the move as a “step in
the right direction. He said that this was not a British-Israeli issue, and that
the abuse of Britain’s universal law was eroding the judicial system in the
“This decision will put the common sense back into the common law,”
Prosor said that the universal jurisdiction did not only prove
problematic for Israelis, but also for British and American officers fighting in
Afghanistan and elsewhere.
“This is important, and I hope it will help
Britain’s involvement in the peace process,” Prosor said.
In a joint
statement, Vivian Wineman, president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews,
and Mick Davis, chairman of the Jewish Leadership Council’s executive committee,
welcomed the decision.
“We welcome this significant step towards the
correction of a legal anomaly that has been exploited for the purpose of
specific political agendas. The proposed remedy will rightly protect both the
principle and practice of universal jurisdiction in serious international
crimes, which is something that our community has always supported.
look forward to the rapid publication of specific legislation and further
details of the legislative vehicle that the government intends to use to deliver
its commitment to bring the matter before Parliament at the first opportunity,”
the statement read.
On Tuesday, Clarke had said the government was
“urgently” considering how to proceed. It is “unsatisfactory” that an
warrant can be issued “on the application of a private prosecutor on the
of evidence that would be insufficient to sustain a prosecution,” the
Clarke was responding to a question by Conservative MP
for Hendon, Matthew Offord, who asked when the law would be
Offord asked how Britain could play a leading role in the
diplomatic world if foreign politicians cannot visit the UK without fear
“Of course we must enforce properly in respect of war crimes and
other matters of universal jurisdiction where proper cases arise, but I
that it is not in any sense in this country’s interests that people can
arrested upon arrival on a level of evidence that would not remotely
prosecution, which is why we intend to address this matter and to make
announcement in the very near future,” Clarke said.
activists have been eager to exploit the International Criminal Court
2001 and the Criminal Justice Act of 1988 to arrest Israeli officials
the UK on charges of war crimes.
Last December, an arrest warrant was
issued for opposition leader Tzipi Livni, who was scheduled to speak at a
charity event in London, over her involvement in Operation Cast Lead,
was foreign minister. She canceled her trip.
In September 2009, an arrest
warrant was issued to Defense Minister Ehud Barak, who was in the UK to
the Labor Party conference.
In 2006, Gaza Division commander Brig.-Gen.
Aviv Kochavi, who was scheduled to study at the Royal College of Defense
in London, was warned by an IDF judge that he could be arrested on
also canceled his trip. Former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief
Dichter also canceled a trip in 2007 (when he was public security
of concern that a warrant might be issued for his arrest.
In 2005, Doron
Almog, former OC Southern Command, avoided arrest at Heathrow Airport
being warned not to disembark from his EL AL flight as British
waiting to arrest him for allegedly ordering the demolition of
in Gaza in 2002.
Before May’s general elections, the Conservatives said
they would act speedily to change the law if elected.
elections, Hague said he was committed to changing the law, as it was
“completely unacceptable” that Israeli officials felt they could not
“This is a country that wants to play a strong role in the Middle
East peace process, and for that Israeli leaders and others have to be
visit the UK. So be in no doubt that we will take action on this, but as
part of a coalition, we must discuss with our colleagues how to best to
he said then.
Britain’s outgoing envoy to Israel, Tom Phillips, spoke
with Livni on Thursday and updated her on the developments.
welcomed the move.
“This amendment will bring an end to the horrible and
twisted [law] that allows individual political activists to cynically
advantage of the legal system to fight the international struggle
terror,” she said.
“The free world must differentiate between real war
criminals, who must be brought to justice, and those who fight terrorism
civilians, including the officers and soldiers of the IDF. This is an
step in the right direction.”
Gil Hoffman contributed to this