Move to change law on ‘political’ arrest warrants postponed until after election
From The Guardian, by Alan Travis, 05/03/2010
Moves to close a loophole in the law that has led to war crimes arrest warrants being issued against high profile politicians including a former Israeli foreign minister have been postponed until after the general election, the Ministry of Justice announced today.
The justice secretary, Jack Straw, said the government recognised that it was a controversial issue as it involved the long-standing right of private prosecution.
“Therefore, rather than legislating now, we are going to seek views on the proposals we are minded to make,” said Straw in a written ministerial statement to MPs.
The Commons justice committee is also to consider the proposed change in the law. A closing date of 6 April has been set for the consultation, making a change in the law impossible before the general election is due to take place.
Justice officials confirm that the move will need primary legislation. The last date to table amendments to the current crime and security bill now going through the Commons has already passed.
The delay is likely to provoke strong criticism from the Israeli government, which has been pressing for swift action to change the law since their former foreign minister Tzipi Livni was forced to cancel a trip to London earlier this year.
“The problem is not hypothetical, as applications for an arrest warrant have been made, on at least two occasions successfully; and there is reason to believe that the risk of arrest may discourage prominent people, with whom HM government would wish to engage, from visiting this country,” said Straw.
Gordon Brown, writing in the Daily Telegraph this morning, said Britain risked having its standing in the world “compromised” by “tolerating such gestures”.
Under the proposals, the Crown Prosecution Service will take over responsibility for prosecuting war crimes and other violations of international law. Currently magistrates have to consider the case for an arrest warrant to be issued.
A warrant for Livni’s arrest was issued by a UK court in December last year after an action by pro-Palestinian campaigners angry at Israel’s assault on Gaza earlier that year. The move sparked furious complaints by the Israeli government.
Colin Powell, the former US secretary of state and a leading player in the Iraq war, has also reportedly expressed alarm about the prospect of arrest in Britain.
Brown wrote in the Telegraph: “As we have seen, there is now significant danger of such a provision being exploited by politically-motivated organisations or individuals who set out only to grab headlines knowing their case has no realistic chance of a successful prosecution.
“There is already growing reason to believe that some people are not prepared to travel to this country for fear that such a private arrest warrant – motivated purely by political gesture – might be sought against them.
“These are sometimes people representing countries and interests with which the UK must engage if we are not only to defend our national interest but maintain and extend an influence for good across the globe.
“Britain cannot afford to have its standing in the world compromised for the sake of tolerating such gestures.”
The PM said he wanted legislation putting jurisdiction for war crimes and similar offences under the CPS to be brought in “as soon as possible”.
“With this approach, I am confident that an amendment on better enforcement of existing legislation will serve to enhance Britain’s status in the eyes of international law, world opinion and history,” he said.
Brown added: “Britain will continue to take action to prosecute or extradite suspected war criminals – regardless of their status or power.”