Revised British law limited to African ex-dictators

December 6, 2010

In News

LONDON (AFP) – Britain sought Wednesday to soothe strained ties with Israel by publishing an amendment to a law that puts visiting officials at risk of arrest for alleged war crimes, sparking outrage from rights groups.

Foreign Secretary William Hague said the change would ensure that private arrest warrants for offences under certain international laws, including the Geneva Convention, would first have to be approved by the chief prosecutor.

The move was welcomed by Israel, whose politicians and officials have been targeted by warrants brought by pro-Palestinian campaign groups, but Amnesty International said it gave war criminals a “free ticket to escape the law”.

Ex-foreign minister Tzipi Livni reportedly cancelled a trip here in December last year after a British court issued a warrant for her arrest over Israel’s 2008-2009 war on Gaza, following an application by Palestinian activists.

The Jewish state also delayed a visit by senior military officers to Britain in January amid fears they could be arrested.

Last month Israel postponed all strategic dialogue with Britain in protest at the so-called law of universal jurisdiction, prompting Hague to promise swift action on the issue.

“The UK is committed to upholding international justice and all of our international obligations. Our core principle remains that those guilty of war crimes must be brought to justice,” Hague said in a statement Wednesday.

“This government has been clear that the current arrangements for obtaining arrest warrants in respect of universal jurisdiction offences are an anomaly that allow the UK?s systems to be abused for political reasons.

“The proposed change is designed to correct these and ensure that people are not detained when there is no realistic chance of prosecution.”

The existing law empowers courts to issue warrants against people accused of offences including certain war crimes, torture and hostage-taking, even if they were committed outside the country by someone who is not a British national.

The amendment has been tacked on to the police reform and social responsibility bill, which outlines widespread reform of police forces in England and Wales. It will be debated in parliament in the coming weeks.

During a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel last month, Hague promised to act fast to amend the law, which he had previously denounced as “indefensible”.

Yigal Palmor, the spokesman of the Israeli foreign ministry, welcomed London’s move to fulfil that pledge.

“We are pleased to see the English government lay down this legislation as promised and look forward to the swift adoption of this amendment,” he said.

In July Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke told parliament that Britain’s commitment to international justice was “unwavering”.

But he warned that allowing universal justice cases to proceed without solid evidence risked “damaging our ability to help in conflict resolution or to pursue a coherent foreign policy”.

Officials insisted Wednesday that the new amendment would not hinder private prosecutions that were well founded, but would block any spurious accusations.

However Amnesty International’s UK director, Kate Allen, said the move would help people trying to flee from justice.

“The current process allows victims of crimes under international law to act quickly against suspected perpetrators who could otherwise enter and leave the UK before police and prosecutors can act,” she said.

“This is a dangerous and unnecessary change.

“Unless a way of guaranteeing a means of preventing suspects fleeing can be built into the proposals, then the UK will have undermined the fight for international justice and handed war criminals a free ticket to escape the law.”