'If we're elected, we'll change universal jurisdiction law'

Conservative Party’s shadow attorney-general, Edward Garnier, speaks to 'Post'.

By BY DAN IZENBERG
February 19, 2010 02:47
2 minute read.

Five weeks before the British general elections, the Labor Party has apparently failed to fulfill its promise to change the law on universal jurisdiction so as to allow government officials to block complainants from going to court, Edward Garnier, the Conservative Party’s shadow attorney-general, told The Jerusalem Post Thursday.

In an exclusive interview, Garnier said that if his party were elected, it would do so.

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“I think everybody wants to resolve the problem, but the chronology is not helpful, because we are five weeks away from an election and the government does not appear to be providing a parliamentary opportunity for the law to be changed,” said Garnier.

“The opposition does not set the agenda for parliament,” he went on. “It’s up to the government to say whether there will be an amendment to the law whilst they are in office. We know what we will do if we win office after the election.”

According to Garnier, British law grants citizens direct access to the courts without the government having the right to intervene. If a magistrate is convinced that a complaint lodged by a citizen has merit, the magistrate is empowered to issue an arrest warrant against the suspect named by the complainant.

The attorney-general and the public prosecutor only come into the picture after the magistrate has issued the arrest warrant and the suspect has been detained.

According to Garnier, a government led by the Conservative Party would change the law so that this freedom of direct access to the court would not apply to the laws of universal jurisdiction.

“We have an ancient right of access for the citizen to go to court to invite the magistrate to issue a warrant,” said Garnier. “But sometimes these rights have to be tailored to fit other circumstances. The circumstances we face at this minute are precisely the sort that will require the law to be changed. What we are not prepared to see is the courts of England and Wales being used as a vehicle for protests. They are law courts, not venues for street protests. So you need to change the gateway so that if there is an arrest warrant to be issued, it should be issued following the intervention of either the attorney-general or the director of public prosecution.”

Garnier made it clear that the change would only apply to allegations of violations against international humanitarian law and the laws of war, such as torture and war crimes.

He added that the Conservative Party was united on this point and that he, Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague and party front-benchers had been speaking out about it.

Last month, British Attorney-General Baroness Scotland visited Israel and said that “the government is looking urgently at ways in which the United Kingdom system might be changed to avoid the situation [in which Israeli military and government leaders, including Kadima Party leader Tzipi Livni, faced arrest if they stepped on British soil], and is determined that Israeli leaders should always be able to travel freely in the UK.”

But she said the dilemma faced by the government was “how... we preserve universal jurisdiction, which we all, including Israel, want for the appropriate individual, while preventing the inappropriate use of a process which was created for a good, solid reason but is being distorted and misused. You have to square the circle.”


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