UK amends law to protect Israelis from prosecution

British envoy Gould informs Livni that universal jurisdiction law allowing warrants to be issued against visiting Israelis for war crimes changed.

311_UK ambassador Gould (photo credit: Courtesy of British Embassy )
311_UK ambassador Gould
(photo credit: Courtesy of British Embassy )
The British government has approved a change to the controversial universal jurisdiction law, used by activists to obtain arrest warrants for alleged war crimes aimed at Israeli dignitaries who visit the UK.
The law previously allowed private complaints of war crimes to be lodged against military personnel even if they were not British citizens and the alleged crimes were committed elsewhere. High profile targets in recent years have included Kadima leader (and former foreign minister) Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak.
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Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke said on Thursday that the change ensures that only those who have perpetrated heinous war crimes, and with solid evidence, will be brought to justice using universal jurisdiction.
“We are clear about our international obligations and these new changes to existing law will ensure the balance is struck between ensuring those who are accused of such heinous crimes do not escape justice and that universal jurisdiction cases are only proceeded with on the basis of solid evidence that is likely to lead to a successful prosecution,” he said.
Despite sustained campaigning over the past year, anti-Israel activists failed to have any impact on the government, which before coming into office in 2010 pledged to change the law.
Royal Assent, when the queen formally approves an act of Parliament, was given on Thursday to the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act, turning the act into law.
The change means that the director of public prosecutions will now be required to give his consent for an arrest warrant to be issued on the grounds of universal jurisdiction. Previously, a magistrate was able to give consent.
Matthew Gould, British ambassador to Israel, said on Thursday that the change would “ensure that the UK’s justice system can no longer be abused for political reasons.
“The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act, which has now received Royal Assent, includes an important amendment to ensure that the UK’s justice system can no longer be abused for political reasons. The change will ensure that people cannot be detained when there is no realistic chance of prosecution, while ensuring that we continue to honor our international obligations.”
Speaking at a Kadima Party event on Thursday, Livni expressed relief at the change.
“Today I received a phone call from the British ambassador,” she said. “There is no longer a warrant for my arrest, because the queen of England signed the order canceling the [universal jurisdiction] law.
“I am happy not because I can travel to England, but because true justice has been done. IDF soldiers and officers can visit England without fear of arrest,” she explained. “The law will differentiate between leaders and commanders who defend their countries against terror, from real war criminals, for whom the law was intended.”
The cancelation of the law “brought about the end of the cynical exploitation of British law,” Livni said.
The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, which worked hard over the years to get the British to amend the law that cast a cloud over Israeli-British ties, had no official reaction on Thursday evening, though government officials expressed satisfaction that Israeli leaders could now travel to Britain without concern of arrest warrants.
Foreign Ministry officials stressed that this was not a strictly bilateral issue, since the law affected the citizens of other countries as well.
Gould told The Jerusalem Post that the bottom line of the change was that “nobody can now abuse the law to bring cases for political and frivolous reasons.”
Although he said that the universal jurisdiction was never specifically aimed at Israel, it did affect the relationship.
“There were well known reports of people who were advised not to go to the UK, and who didn’t go, and now that can change,” he said. “This was an obstacle to building the relationship. Now that the obstacle is out of the way, it means we can take the relationship up another level.”
Gould said that as soon as the law was changed in the afternoon, he spoke to officials in Israel’s Foreign and Defense ministries, and in the Prime Minister’s Office, as well as to people who were affected by this legislation in the past, such as Livni, Intelligence Agencies Minister Dan Meridor, former defense minister MK Shaul Mofaz and former OC Southern Command Maj.-Gen. (res) Doron Almog.
Gould said that Cameron pledged during the election campaign last year that if elected he would change the law. He delivered on his pledge, Gould said. staff contributed to this report.