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(photo credit: Ben Spier)
Britain is determined to find a way to modify its system of universal jurisdiction so that visiting Israeli leaders will not face arrest, but must do so without damaging the principle itself, British Attorney-General Baroness Scotland of Asthal said on Tuesday.
The attorney-general was speaking at the Hebrew University's annual Lionel Cohen lecture.
"The foreign secretary has stated clearly that the government is looking urgently at ways in which the United Kingdom system might be changed to avoid the situation arising again, and is determined that Israeli leaders should always be able to travel freely to the United Kingdom," she said, referring to a recent incident in which a warrant for arrest was issued against Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni.
But the baroness also made clear that the government would only make a change which preserved the principle of universal jurisdiction, and ruled out the possibility that any demand for an arrest warrant would first have to obtain the approval of the attorney-general.
The dilemma facing the government, she said, was "how do 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 that circle. You have to make it possible to prosecute but also make the procedure less amenable to misuse."
She explained that in British law, the decision to prosecute is made by the attorney-general, but only after the police and the Crown Prosecution Service investigate the allegation and conclude that there is sufficient evidence and public interest to justify considering prosecution.
The power of the attorney-general to decide whether a criminal case should go to court means that in many cases the injured party may not have the opportunity to see his alleged assailant go on trial. To compensate him for this, the legislature decided to grant him the right to go directly to the court and ask for an arrest warrant.
"Now that is the balance that was achieved, and indeed, when you look back at the time when the law was being debated, there was a lot of concern about Nazis, warlords and other criminals," Baroness Scotland said.
"It was said that without universal jurisdiction, such people would be able to go from state to state with impunity," she continued. "There was an absolute unity of purpose, saying we do not wish any country to be a haven, and that was the premise upon which universal jurisdiction was based."
Asked whether the British attorney-general could at least veto the right of so-called victims to request arrest warrants based on false or trumped up charges, she replied, "One of the things we know is that absolute power corrupts absolutely. We have to be very judicious as to how we structure a system which will enable proper attention [to the alleged victim] to be paid in the beginning, which is an investigative function. We have to make clear that the attorney comes in at the end of the process, not at the beginning."
"Therefore," she said, "when you look at models, you have to look at models which will enable the process to be robust, to deliver the change you wish, but to be proportional."
Regarding complaints that the level of evidence required by British law for a court to issue an arrest warrant was much lower than that required by the prosecutor to indict, the baroness said that if the requirements for arrest warrants were raised, there would be no investigations.
Nevertheless, despite the problems involved in preserving an effective universal justice system without making it easily exploitable, Baroness Scotland said, "Energetic efforts are being made to find a suitable, proportionate, lawful, effective European Council on Human Right-compliant solution."
Earlier in the day, Baroness Scotland met Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, who told her that it was obvious the threat of arrest warrants against senior Israeli officials would "make it difficult for the two countries to maintain a normal relationship."
Ayalon discussed not only the arrest warrant that was issued against Livni in December, but also the cancellation at the end of the month of a trip to Britain by an IDF delegation invited by the British army to discuss counter-insurgency measures.
When the British government could not provide guarantees that arrest warrants would not be issued against the members of the delegation, the IDF - according to Foreign Ministry officials - decided to scratch the visit.
Ayalon expressed regret that certain hostile organizations in the UK were manipulating and exploiting Britain's laws to attack Israel.
The baroness, according to a statement issued by Ayalon's office, said during the meeting that she was aware of the importance of finding an urgent solution to the issue, and that the British government was considering a number of options.
Israeli officials said after the meeting that Ayalon made clear Israel was not going to let up on the issue, and that Scotland was aware of the issue's importance, and treated it seriously.
Also on Tuesday, Channel 2 reported that pro-Palestinian organizations were gearing up to harass with war criminal charges dual South African-Israeli citizens visiting South Africa who have served in the IDF. The Foreign Ministry said it was aware of the concerns, but that there were no immediate threats.â€¢
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