War crimes arrest law will change next week

By Martin Bright and Anshel Pfeffer, January 14, 2010
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Jack Straw: The law will be changed after war crimes warrants issued to Israeli politicians

Jack Straw: The law will be changed after war crimes warrants issued to Israeli politicians

New legislation to stop magistrates granting arrest warrants for visiting politicians and military figures accused of war crimes will be announced next week, the JC can reveal.

The outcry from Israel over a warrant issued for opposition leader Tzipi Livni last month led the government to make a commitment to ensure prominent Israelis will in future be able to travel to the UK without fear of arrest.

Lawyers representing Palestinians in Gaza successfully applied for a warrant last month over Ms Livni’s involvement in authorising Operation Cast Lead.

The new legislation will pass the power to issue arrest warrants for prominent figures such as Ms Livni to the Attorney General.

Any change in the law is expected to lead to a backbench rebellion from pro-Palestinian Labour MPs, and the government is likely to need the support of the Conservatives to push it through. An early-day motion opposing any change to the law has already been signed by 62 MPs.

A source close to Justice Secretary Jack Straw confirmed that ministerial discussions were in their final stages.

Any change to the law would have to be made within days in order to meet the pre-election legislative timetable, the source explained.

I am keen to resolve this issue and am urgently discussing it with colleagues across government. We hope to come forward with proposals very soon.

Jack Straw

Mr Straw is understood to be furious at the suggestion that he has been dragging his heels over the issue. He told the JC: “I am keen to resolve this issue and am urgently discussing it with colleagues across government. We hope to come forward with proposals very soon.”

Senior figures within the Jewish community and sources at the Foreign Office have consistently briefed that they were working hard to overcome resistance from Mr Straw at the Ministry of Justice.

However, officials at the ministry said that any delay was due to the complexity of the negotiations rather than any ideological opposition from the Justice Secretary himself.

Critics of the move are concerned that it will undermine the principle of “universal jurisdiction” and make it easier for war crimes to go unpunished.

Opposition from Labour backbenchers was voiced at a parliamentary debate on Tuesday over the Goldstone report into the Gaza conflict.

Chair of Labour Friends of Palestine, Martin Linton, who secured the debate, argued that the principle of universal jurisdiction should be upheld.

Referring to a visit of Israeli military experts which had to be cancelled earlier this month, he said: “Frankly, if the two Israeli officers had come to London last week, it would have been a good thing if they had been arrested.”

Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn, who was closely involved in the campaign surrounding the arrest of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet said: “I am proud of the fact that we have universal jurisdiction in British courts and I will in no way support the reduction of that right in any parliamentary move that is made by the government.”

Stuart Polak, Director of Conservative Friends of Israel, confirmed that the Tories would back the government on the issue: “As the Shadow Justice Secretary has clearly stated, the Conservative Party is committed to find a solution to the problem and will support the government on any workable and credible solution they develop.”

The Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council said in a joint statement: “We have had ongoing, intensive conversations with 10 Downing Street and other government departments this week.

“The process has gathered momentum and we have now received a clear indication that a set of remedies to this problem are imminent. As soon as they are communicated to us, we will be reviewing the detailed proposals with our legal advisers to ensure that they achieve what is required.

“This is an internal British issue,” said a source at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem. “The British government has repeatedly promised to change its legislation and we are waiting for them to fulfil that commitment.”

    Last updated: 9:54am, March 26 2010