UK unlikely to amend war crimes arrest law in near future

Gov't begins process that would make it harder to threaten Israelis, but Tory critics say it's ducking issue.

By JONNY PAUL IN LONDON
March 5, 2010 06:12
Gordon Brown

gordon brown 311. (photo credit: AP)

Britain’s Labor government on Thursday put into motion a parliamentary process that would make it harder to threaten visiting Israelis with arrest on “war crimes” charges, as occurred when opposition leader Tzipi Livni planned a visit to the UK in December.

But Conservative critics said the government was actually ducking the issue, and that the law would not be changed in the near future.

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Justice Secretary Jack Straw issued a statement saying the government was concerned about the implications for Britain’s relations with other states because of the risk that foreign visitors might be arrested “on the application of a private individual, on suspicion of the gravest of offenses,” based on evidence that might not hold up in court.

As a result of the proposed legislation, the attorney-general’s consent – not merely that of a local magistrate’s judge – would be necessary to arrest someone who was not a British national and was alleged to have committed an offense outside of the United Kingdom.

This change, Straw wrote, would mean an arrest warrant would only be issued when there was a realistic likelihood of successful prosecution.

However, Straw said he was seeking “views on the proposals” before they could go through the legislation process, and wanted discussions to continue until April 6.

“The government recognizes that this is a controversial issue, involving, as it does, the long-standing right of private prosecution. Therefore, rather than legislating now, we are going to seek views on the proposals we are minded to make.

“In particular, I am writing to the chairman of the Justice Select Committee to ask if his committee would consider those proposals. We intend to conclude this process within a month, and to receive views by Tuesday, April 6,” he said.

Israel has been pressing Britain for years to make a change in the current situation, which makes it possible for any individual or group to get an arrest warrant issued by a local magistrate.

The issue came to a head in December, when Livni canceled a planned trip to Britain because an arrest warrant had been issued against her.

While Israel and Britain have been talking about this matter for years – retired general Doron Almog barely escaped arrest at London’s Heathrow Airport in 2005 – Livni’s case catapulted the issue to the top of the bilateral agenda, with everyone from British Prime Minister Gordon Brown downward promising a change.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry had no comment on the issue on Thursday, saying it was an internal British matter.

The Israeli Embassy in London, however, said it welcomed the announcement to consider a change to the law, but recognized that it was unlikely to materialize in the near future.

“We welcome this morning’s announcement by the prime minister, and the good intentions contained within. We particularly concur that ‘Britain cannot afford to have its standing in the world compromised for the sake of tolerating such gestures,’” a statement said, quoting an op-ed by Brown that was published in Thursday’s Daily Telegraph. “The engine is finally being revved up. However, we are wary that this legislation could easily end up getting stuck in the crawler lane, or perhaps run out of fuel entirely, never to reach its destination,” the embassy said.

British Ambassador to Israel Tom Phillips called Livni and informed her of the proposed change. According to a statement issued by Livni, she thanked him and said Britain was taking “an important step in the right direction.”

“The British legal system has been abused by cynical elements in the United Kingdom, which have done injustice to the whole country,” she said in the statement. “This is important news for every country in the free world which is fighting terror.”

The statement said that two leading Conservative Party politicians who visited Israel recently had told Livni they backed changing the law, meaning that – with the country soon going to elections – both the Labor and Conservative parties supported the move.

In his Telegraph op-ed explaining the change, Brown wrote, “It is our moral duty to ensure that there is no hiding place for those suspected of the most serious international crimes.” 

At the same time, he continued, “the process by which we take action must guarantee the best results. The only question for me is whether our purpose is best served by a process where an arrest warrant for the gravest crimes can be issued on the slightest of evidence.

“As we have seen, there is now significant danger of such a provision being exploited by politically-motivated organizations or individuals who set out only to grab headlines knowing their case has no realistic chance of a successful prosecution,” he wrote.

According to the prime minister, “there is already growing reason to believe that some people are not prepared to travel to this country for fear that such a private arrest warrant – motivated purely by political gesture – might be sought against them.”

Britain, he said, “cannot afford to have its standing in the world compromised for the sake of tolerating such gestures.”

The Conservative Party, however, accused the government of “ducking” the issue, with Shadow Justice Secretary Dominic Grieve saying, “This morning Gordon Brown wrote in the Daily Telegraph that ‘Britain cannot afford to have its standing in the world compromised’ by spurious and politicized war crimes prosecutions. This afternoon, he kicked the whole issue into the long grass. The Conservatives would have supported him in resolving the problem, but he has chosen to duck it instead.”

“The government’s announcements today are a smoke screen,” said Stuart Polak, director of Conservative Friends of Israel. “No legislation has been tabled, and the law will not yet be changed.

“By the end of the consultation on April 6, there will be no further legislation going through parliament before the election. It is clear the government has ducked out of yet another important decision.

“By contrast, Conservatives have consistently said that the law needs to be changed and that they would help the government pass any legislation on this issue,” he went on. “For the last three months, they have pressed the government to act urgently to make the necessary changes. The Labor government has chosen not to act.”


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