Israel hails 'twisted' UK law change

Move to prevent "arrest warrants to make a political statement."

Livni 311 AP (photo credit: AP)
Livni 311 AP
(photo credit: AP)
Israeli diplomatic officials applauded the new Conservative British government on Thursday for announcing plans to amend the UK’s universal jurisdiction law.
The government of Prime Minister David Cameron is moving on this issue, whereas all the previous Labor government did was talk about it, the officials said.
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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 law.
“Our commitment to our international obligations and to ensuring that there is no impunity for those accused of crimes of universal jurisdiction is unwavering.
“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 level.”
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 issued.
“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.
Israeli 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 as well.
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 Israel.
“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 said.
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 UK.
“This decision will put the common sense back into the common law,” he said.
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.
“We 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 arrest warrant can be issued “on the application of a private prosecutor on the basis of evidence that would be insufficient to sustain a prosecution,” the justice secretary said.
Clarke was responding to a question by Conservative MP for Hendon, Matthew Offord, who asked when the law would be changed.
Offord asked how Britain could play a leading role in the diplomatic world if foreign politicians cannot visit the UK without fear of arrest.
“Of course we must enforce properly in respect of war crimes and other matters of universal jurisdiction where proper cases arise, but I agree that it is not in any sense in this country’s interests that people can be arrested upon arrival on a level of evidence that would not remotely sustain a prosecution, which is why we intend to address this matter and to make an announcement in the very near future,” Clarke said.
Pro-Palestinian activists have been eager to exploit the International Criminal Court Act of 2001 and the Criminal Justice Act of 1988 to arrest Israeli officials visiting 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 Jewish charity event in London, over her involvement in Operation Cast Lead, when she 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 speak at the Labor Party conference.
In 2006, Gaza Division commander Brig.-Gen. Aviv Kochavi, who was scheduled to study at the Royal College of Defense Studies in London, was warned by an IDF judge that he could be arrested on arrival. He also canceled his trip. Former Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) chief Avi Dichter also canceled a trip in 2007 (when he was public security minister) out of concern that a warrant might be issued for his arrest.
In 2005, Doron Almog, former OC Southern Command, avoided arrest at Heathrow Airport after being warned not to disembark from his EL AL flight as British detectives were waiting to arrest him for allegedly ordering the demolition of Palestinian homes in Gaza in 2002.
Before May’s general elections, the Conservatives said they would act speedily to change the law if elected.
After the elections, Hague said he was committed to changing the law, as it was “completely unacceptable” that Israeli officials felt they could not visit.
“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 able to 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 do it,” he said then.
Britain’s outgoing envoy to Israel, Tom Phillips, spoke with Livni on Thursday and updated her on the developments.
Livni welcomed the move.
“This amendment will bring an end to the horrible and twisted [law] that allows individual political activists to cynically take advantage of the legal system to fight the international struggle against terror,” she said.
“The free world must differentiate between real war criminals, who must be brought to justice, and those who fight terrorism against civilians, including the officers and soldiers of the IDF. This is an important step in the right direction.”

Gil Hoffman contributed to this report.