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UK Rewrites War Crimes

Posted: Mon Oct 03, 2011 11:42 pm
by onepence ... s-request/


Universal jurisdiction is a simple concept. Deriving its authority from Common Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions, it places an obligation upon all states “to respect and ensure respect” for the laws of war, effectively requiring all states to prosecute suspected war criminals regardless of where the crimes were committed.

In reality, however, universal jurisdiction has rarely been invoked. This absence of enforcement in a world replete with war crimes and crimes against humanity may seem more than a little peculiar but is easily explained. In the vast majority of states the decision to investigate and prosecute lies with the state-controlled institutions of the police and public prosecutor’s office, and these unfortunately, unless they are politically sanctioned to do so, do not spend time investigating crimes committed elsewhere.

Consequently, when suspected war criminals travel abroad they travel with virtual impunity; the preparatory investigations needed to establish a case against them having simply not been done. Until mid September, however, there was one country where war criminals stood a fair chance of having their day in court.

In the UK the judicial system allowed private parties and individuals to present their own evidence of war crimes before a magistrate who could then, if he or she felt the case was strong enough, issue a warrant for the suspect’s arrest. Consequently, in 2005 retired Israeli General Doron Almog only escaped arrest by skulking in his plane before being flown back to Israel, while in 2009 Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni cancelled her trip rather than face arrest. Other senior Israeli figures simply chose to stay away from Britain.

Sadly on 15 September this means of potentially achieving justice was revoked. In response to Israeli protests the UK government chose to change its laws rather than see Israelis arrested. In a move condemned by Amnesty International, the UK government amended the law on universal jurisdiction so that in future only the Director of Public Prosecutions can authorize the arrest of a suspected war criminal (“Tories make life easier for war criminals,” Liberal Conspiracy, 30 March 2011).


Skipping Holocaust dinner to vote

Nevertheless, the move to change the law was not unaccompanied by controversy, and The Jewish Chronicle reported that in the House of Lords the vote was tied 222 to 222 and only passed because one lord, Monroe Palmer, former president of the Liberal Democrats Friends of Israel group, put off an invitation to attend a Holocaust Education Trust dinner (“Universal jurisdiction change becomes law,” The Jewish Chronicle, 15 September 2011). That in itself seems odd; surely Palmer should have gone and perhaps learned that, to use the Latin phrase, “impunitas sempre ad deteriora invitat,” impunity always leads to greater crimes.

And certainly it is also at odds with the assessment by retired South African judge Richard Goldstone that “The lack of accountability for war crimes and possible war crimes against humanity has reached a crisis point; the ongoing lack of justice is undermining any hope for a successful peace process and reinforcing an environment that fosters violence” (“Goldstone defends Gaza war crimes report,” Ynet News, 29 September 2009).

Sadly, however, while Ilana Stein of the Israeli foreign ministry celebrated — “We are glad that Britain has made the right choice” — it seems that the lessons of the Holocaust have still to be learned.