UKGovernment takes a step away from accountability

16th September 2011 – BADIL Resource Center for Palestinian Residency and Refugee Rights

On Wednesday, the Queen of England signed an amendment to the Police and Social Responsibility Act which changes the laws on Universal Jurisdiction enshrined in the Geneva Conventions of 1949. The move overturns legislation, in place for over 50 years, designed to ensure accountability for war crimes victims and represents a major step back in the struggle for justice and  the application of the rule of law around the globe.

The Geneva Conventions Act of 1957 previously allowed the UK to prosecute war criminals in its own courts, even when the war crimes were committed in other countries by non-UK residents. When a suspected war criminal entered the UK, a private individual or organization could approach a magistrate for the issuance of an arrest warrant as long as they provided sufficient evidence to proceed. The current  amendment changes the law to  require the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions prior to issuing an arrest warrant for a war crimes suspect. This change removes the ability of victims to act quickly to prevent the escape of suspects, encourages political intervention in the judiciary and is contrary to the rule of law.

The law on universal jurisdiction has come under scrutiny in recent years following its successful use in issuing arrest warrants against a number of Israeli war crimes suspects, most notably Doron Almog in 2005. Since then, other Israeli leaders including Avi Dichter, Moshe Ya'alon and Aviv Kochavi have been intimidated by the potential use of this law and canceled their visits to the UK. Israeli Defense Minister, Ehud Barak, while in the UK in 2009, only escaped the issuing of an arrest warrant because of immunity lawsprotecting a serving minister. In December 2009, Tzipi Livni,  Foreign Minister during the 2008-2009 Israeli military assault on Gaza, planned to visit the UK but cancelled her trip when a magistrate issued a warrant for her arrest. Following this incident David Milliband and Gordon Brown promised to change the law to accommodate Israeli demands for continued criminal impunity.

Following legal actions against Israeli officials in Spain and Belgium, these countries, under considerable political pressure, have already similarly changed their universal jurisdiction laws to make it easier for war crimes suspects to enter their countries unrestricted.As stated in BADIL's forthcoming paper on International Criminal Law:

the changes in the universal jurisdiction laws of several countries illustrates the political pressure exerted by powerful states, when their senior officials are under threat, on countries attempting to fulfill their obligations to prosecute international crimes and abide by the rule of law.1

Ironically, it was Israel who first used the legal principle of Universal Jurisdiction, in  modern times, to prosecute the Nazi war criminal Adolph Eichmann in 1961. The change in the the rules of applicationof such a key principle of International Humanitarian Law,  essential to the protection of victims of war crimes, is illustrative of the continuing ascendancy of geo-political considerations  over the implementation of the rule of law. It exposes the hypocrisy of the governments of Western countries who flout the importance of human rights when it suits their agendas, yet deny protection and justice to the Palestinian victims of Israel's war crimes and crimes against humanity.

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1. BADIL Working Paper no 12, Applying International Criminal Law to Israel’s Treatment of the Palestinian People (soon to be published).