The Justice Secretary, Ken Clarke, announced today that the coalition government will act “at the first opportunity” to change the law on universal jurisdiction for war crimes.
It will table a legislative amendment which will require the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions before an arrest warrant can be issued, in response to any private prosecution for war crimes.
It is expected that the amendment will be introduced in September, when Parliament returns from its summer recess.
In December last year, lawyers representing Palestinians in Gaza successfully applied for an arrest warrant for Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, in advance of her planned visit to the UK. The warrant was issued over her involvement in authorising Operation Cast Lead.
The outrage, prompted by a magistrate’s decision to issue the warrant, led the Labour government to make a commitment to ensure that prominent Israelis would in future be able to travel to the UK without fear of arrest.
Among the solutions considered was the one now adopted by Mr Clarke. But in the subsequent five months, despite repeated pledges to act and intensive lobbying from the Board of Deputies, the Jewish Leadership Council, the Israeli government and others, no action was taken.
The then Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, is believed to have led the push within the government for action, but was thwarted by the Justice Secretary, Jack Straw.
The Conservatives attacked the government for its failure to act and committed themselves to reform of the law.
Shortly after taking office in May, Foreign Secretary William Hague reiterated his position, saying that the current situation was “unsatisfactory and indefensible” and pledging that it “must be put right”.
During the general election, however, the Lib Dems made clear their opposition to reform.
A party statement issued to the Palestine Solidarity Campaign said that they “oppose any attacks on universal jurisdiction...we are opposed to any dilution of the law that would help those suspected of war crimes evade justice.
“If there are flaws in the current system we would support changes in legislation, but only following a thorough judicial review. There can be no special cases for individual countries.”
Stuart Polak, director of the Conservative Friends of Israel, said: “For months before the general election the Conservatives were urging reform of the legislation in order to prevent it being exploited. Ministers failed to act.
“Now, in coalition, the Conservatives have acted on their promise.”
Today’s written statement by Mr Clarke said that the UK’s “commitment to ensuring that there is no impunity for those accused of…[war] crimes” is “unwavering”.
But, he went on: “It is important, however, that 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.
It is unsatisfactory that, as things stand, an arrest warrant for these grave offences can be issued on the application of a private prosecutor on the basis of evidence that would be insufficient to sustain a prosecution.”
Requiring the approval of the DPP before a warrant can be issued would, the Justice Secretary said, “interfere as little as possible with the existing rights of private prosecutors, and would not prevent them from initiating prosecutions for these offences where the evidence justified that course”.
Board of Deputies president and Jewish Leadership Council (JLC) chairman Vivian Wineman, together with JLC Executive Committee chairman Mick Davis, welcomed the decision as "a significant step towards the correction of a legal anomaly that has been exploited for the purpose of specific political agendas"
They said: "The proposed remedy will rightly protect both the principle and practice of Universal Jurisdiction in serious international crimes which is something that our community has always supported.
"We look forward to the rapid publication of specific legislation and further details of the legislative vehicle that the Government intends to use to deliver its commitment.”
Ms Livni said it was an "important" decision.
She said: ""This amendment will bring an end to the horrible and twisted [law] that allows individual political activists to cynically take advantage of the legal system.
"The free world must differentiate between real war criminals who must be brought to justice and those who fight terrorism against civilians, including the officers and soldiers of the IDF.
A spokesperson for the Israeli Embassy in London called it a "positive first step in stopping an abuse of British law".
He said: "We look forward to this passing through parliament, so that the UK can continue to play an important role in the region."
Sarah Colborne, director of campaigns and operations at Palestine Solidarity Campaign, accused the "cynical coalition government" of "bending over backwards to welcome Israeli leaders to this country."
She said: "How much lower can Cameron and Clegg stoop? If this legislation is passed, it will affect not only the people of Palestine, but victims of war crimes around the world.
"It must be stopped - there should be no safe haven for war criminals here."