Arrest warrant bill passes first hurdle

By Martin Bright, March 31, 2011

A further milestone towards the reform of the law on universal jurisdiction was passed on Wednesday with the government seeing off two Labour amendments to its new Police Bill.

A last-minute amendment, tabled by the Labour front bench, proposed the establishment of specialist units in the Crown Prosecution Service and the Metropolitan Police to speed up decisions about the arrest of war criminals. Tabled by Shadow Police and Criminal Justice Minister Vernon Coaker, it had the backing of Labour leader Ed Miliband, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper and Labour Foreign Affairs spokesman Douglas Alexander.

However, the government rejected this as it believed there would be serious cost implications in setting up the new bodies.

Veteran Labour campaigner Ann Clwyd proposed a wrecking amendment, to remove altogether the clause passing responsibility for war crimes arrest warrants to the Director of Public Prosecutions. Both amendments were heavily defeated and the bill now passes to the House of Lords.

The Jewish Leadership Council was forced to issue a briefing to Labour MPs after Opposition whips told them the Jewish community had no problem with Mr Coaker's amendment. A source close to the JLC expressed satisfaction that the bill had passed another stage of its passage through parliament, but added: "We are not counting our chickens. There is still a long way to go."

Jewish leaders: still a long way to go

Under the present system, magistrates are able to issue arrest warrants for alleged war criminals. Over the past two years, several prominent Israeli politicians and military figures have cancelled visits to Britain for fear of being arrested. Israeli Opposition leader Tzipi Livni was briefly issued with a warrant in December 2009 after an application from lawyers acting on behalf of pro-Palestinian campaigners.

Conservative Party leader David Cameron said he would change the legislation on universal jurisdiction if his party came to power, and the coalition has held to the pledge.

An Early Day Motion tabled by Tom Brake, who is leading on the issue for the Liberal Democrats, welcomed the DPP's assurances that he would pursue prosecutions and monitor the effectiveness of the new arrangements. It seems this brought the Lib Dems in behind the government. Supporters of the Labour amendment argued that the new units would reassure people that the new system would not slow down the arrest of any genuine war crimes suspects. A senior Labour source told the JC that the amendment would ensure that resources were retained for the crucial work of war crimes investigations.

The proposed amendment was designed to pacify backbenchers uncomfortable that the legislation could water down the principle of universal jurisdiction for crimes against humanity. But Labour figures behind it were keen to stress that it should not be interpreted as a shift in Labour's support for Israel under Ed Miliband's leadership.

However, the amendment has caused deep consternation among some Labour supporters of Israel, who believed it was a dangerous compromise to the party's pro-Palestinian Left.

Last updated: 12:05pm, March 31 2011