Britain Welcomes War Criminals

February 1, 2011

While hundreds of thousands of Egyptians are braving repression, and many thousands of Tunisians, Yemenis and Algerians have been doing the same over the past two weeks, the British government is pushing through legislation that will make it harder for autocrats and torturers to be held to account if they travel to the UK.

The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, which is currently at the committee stage in the House of Commons, takes aim explicitly at the practice of “universal jurisdiction” – the process by which arrest warrants can be served against those visiting the UK if they are deemed likely to have committed human rights abuses abroad. If the Tories have their way, then any such application will have to secure the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions, making it far harder to obtain.

The stated aim of the legislation was outlined in July 2010 in a ministerial statement by Kenneth Clarke, the Justice Secretary. According to Clarke, it had become necessary to remove authority over launching a prosecution from ordinary magistrates “because the evidence necessary to issue an arrest warrant may be far less than would be needed for a prosecution.” Hence, he argued, “the system is open to 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.”

But he then cited as evidence for his claim that the system had or could be abused past attempts to bring to justice “dignitaries such as Henry Kissinger, Chinese Trade Minister Bo Xilai and Tzipi Livni, former Foreign Minister and now leader of the Opposition in Israel.” All of these individuals could quite plausibly be accused of offences that come under universal jurisdiction, which include war crimes, torture and hostage taking.

In reality, Clarke was not standing up for the interests of impartial justice, and certainly not for human rights. He made his statement for reasons of state. As he continued, “universal jurisdiction cases should be proceeded with in 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.”

A “coherent foreign policy” is naturally one which finds room for those who launched Operation Cast Lead against Gaza, and the carpet bombing of Cambodia. And that is why Amnesty International described the Bill in December as handing a “free ticket” to war criminals.

More specifically, the measure has been fast-tracked in response to the anger shown by Israeli politicians Tzipi Livni and Dan Meridor after they were forced to cancel visits to the UK, with the threat of arrest under universal jurisdiction hanging over them. Vastly over-stating the effects on Israeli visitors, George Osborne told the Board of Deputies of British Jews that this had made him “determined to bring an end to the wholly unacceptable situation that sees many high-profile visitors from Israel threatened with arrest in Britain under the excuse of universal jurisdiction.”

Meridor had sought to enter the UK to address the Britain and Israel Communications and Research Centre in November 2010, yet refused to travel after Palestine Solidarity activists vowed to launch a prosecution, citing Meridor’s role as Israeli Deputy Prime Minister and Intelligence minister in attacking a flotilla bound for Gaza in May 2010. That attack, which left 9 activists dead at the hands of Israeli commandos, was later found by a UN report to have breached international law, therefore qualifying the perpetrators for prosecution under the Geneva Convention for “wilful killing; torture or inhuman treatment; wilfully causing great suffering or serious injury to body or health.”

Again, in 2010, the Sri Lankan president Mahindra Rajapakse cancelled a planned visit to the UK, citing fears that he would be prosecuted for war crimes (amply documented) committed during the assault on Tamil areas in 2009. UN estimates have suggested that 7,000 Tamil civilians died in the assault, which may be an underestimate. Yet regardless of the likelihood that Rajapakse was guilty of wanton destruction of civilian life, he will soon be able to visit the UK, along with Meridor and Kissinger, as often and as freely as they wish.

In a sense, it is surprising that the principle of universal jurisdiction has survived for so long in the UK. After all, no government wants to court embarrassment, and the New Labour and Lib-Con administrations are both implicated in what could be construed as severe war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan.

From the citizen’s perspective, there is a massive amount at stake here. As human rights lawyer Michael Mansfield has argued, “I am less concerned about foreign politicians feeling able to visit this country than about foreign politicians feeling able to commit war crimes.” But we are losing access to the one legal means we have of holding such villains to account.

Given his record of torture, murder and corruption, it is not likely that Hosni Mubarak will be planning for a descent into senility in the suburbs of London, yet in the near future he, and other sub-Pinochet thugs will find the UK a congenial retirement home.

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