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.

gordon brown 311 (photo credit: AP)
gordon brown 311
(photo credit: AP)
Britain’s Labor government on Thursday put into motion a parliamentaryprocess that would make it harder to threaten visiting Israelis witharrest on “war crimes” charges, as occurred when opposition leaderTzipi Livni planned a visit to the UK in December.
But Conservative critics said the government was actually ducking theissue, and that the law would not be changed in the near future.
Justice Secretary Jack Straw issued a statement saying the governmentwas concerned about the implications for Britain’s relations with otherstates because of the risk that foreign visitors might be arrested “onthe application of a private individual, on suspicion of the gravest ofoffenses,” 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 toarrest someone who was not a British national and was alleged to havecommitted an offense outside of the United Kingdom.
This change, Straw wrote, would mean an arrest warrant would only beissued when there was a realistic likelihood of successful prosecution.
However, Straw said he was seeking “views on the proposals” before theycould go through the legislation process, and wanted discussions tocontinue 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 onthe proposals we are minded to make.
“In particular, I am writing to the chairman of the Justice SelectCommittee to ask if his committee would consider those proposals. Weintend to conclude this process within a month, and to receive views byTuesday, April 6,” he said.
Israel has been pressing Britain for years to make a change in thecurrent situation, which makes it possible for any individual or groupto get an arrest warrant issued by a local magistrate.
The issue came to a head in December, when Livni canceled a plannedtrip 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’sHeathrow Airport in 2005 – Livni’s case catapulted the issue to the topof the bilateral agenda, with everyone from British Prime MinisterGordon 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 theannouncement to consider a change to the law, but recognized that itwas unlikely to materialize in the near future.
“We welcome this morning’s announcement by the prime minister, and thegood intentions contained within. We particularly concur that ‘Britaincannot afford to have its standing in the world compromised for thesake of tolerating such gestures,’” a statement said, quoting an op-edby Brown that was published in Thursday’s Daily Telegraph.“The engine is finally being revved up. However, we are wary that thislegislation could easily end up getting stuck in the crawler lane, orperhaps run out of fuel entirely, never to reach its destination,” theembassy said.
British Ambassador to Israel Tom Phillips called Livni and informed herof the proposed change. According to a statement issued by Livni, shethanked him and said Britain was taking “an important step in the rightdirection.”
“The British legal system has been abused by cynical elements in theUnited Kingdom, which have done injustice to the whole country,” shesaid in the statement. “This is important news for every country in thefree world which is fighting terror.”
The statement said that two leading Conservative Party politicians whovisited Israel recently had told Livni they backed changing the law,meaning that – with the country soon going to elections – both theLabor and Conservative parties supported the move.
In his Telegraph op-edexplaining the change, Brown wrote, “It is our moral duty to ensurethat there is no hiding place for those suspected of the most seriousinternational crimes.” 
At the same time, he continued, “the process by which we take actionmust guarantee the best results. The only question for me is whetherour purpose is best served by a process where an arrest warrant for thegravest crimes can be issued on the slightest of evidence.
“As we have seen, there is now significant danger of such a provisionbeing exploited by politically-motivated organizations or individualswho set out only to grab headlines knowing their case has no realisticchance of a successful prosecution,” he wrote.
According to the prime minister, “there is already growing reason tobelieve that some people are not prepared to travel to this country forfear that such a private arrest warrant – motivated purely by politicalgesture – 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, “Thismorning Gordon Brown wrote in the Daily Telegraphthat ‘Britain cannot afford to have its standing in the worldcompromised’ by spurious and politicized war crimes prosecutions. Thisafternoon, he kicked the whole issue into the long grass. TheConservatives would have supported him in resolving the problem, but hehas chosen to duck it instead.”
“The government’s announcements today are a smoke screen,” said StuartPolak, director of Conservative Friends of Israel. “No legislation hasbeen tabled, and the law will not yet be changed.
“By the end of the consultation on April 6, there will be no furtherlegislation going through parliament before the election. It is clearthe government has ducked out of yet another important decision.
“By contrast, Conservatives have consistently said that the law needsto be changed and that they would help the government pass anylegislation on this issue,” he went on. “For the last three months,they have pressed the government to act urgently to make the necessarychanges. The Labor government has chosen not to act.”