Universal Jurisdiction

On 1st December 2010, the Coalition Government had the first reading of the proposed Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill.  As part of this Bill, the Coalition Government is attaching a clause that will make it harder to arrest war crimes and torture suspects while they are in the UK under our universal jurisdiction laws.

You can read our full briefing on universal jurisdiction below.

What is Universal Jurisdiction?

The UK has universal jurisdiction under the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 (and other legislation), which enables suspects of extremely grave offences to be tried in the UK regardless of where the crime was committed or the nationality of the perpetrator or victim. Its purpose is to ensure that there is no hiding place for people accused of the most serious crimes including war crimes and torture.

A private prosecution can be brought in universal jurisdiction cases and individuals can initiate criminal proceedings by applying to a magistrate for a summons or an arrest warrant.

“In circumstances, where states and governments have failed to ensure compliance with the norms of international law and justice, it is absolutely vital that the private citizen should have the right to instigate the arrest of a transgressor”

– Michael Mansfield QC, July 2010.

What changes are being proposed?

The coalition government plans would require the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions before an arrest warrant can be issued to a private prosecutor in respect of an offence of universal jurisdiction.

What impact will these changes have?

Under international law the UK has an obligation to prosecute or extradite those suspected of war crimes or torture anywhere in the world.  The proposed changes to universal jurisdiction are retrograde measures which will make it far more difficult to bring anyone accused of serious human rights violations before the courts. It further:

  • Risks adding a political dimension (by involving the Director of Public Prosecutions) to a legal decision and introduce a source of delay when urgent action may be required to stop a suspect escaping justice.
  • Undermines our judiciary by implying any previous arrest warrants were issued without judges being satisfied of the existence of serious evidence against the person concerned
  • Makes it more difficult for the UK to call on other countries to uphold human rights and international law and face accusations of double standards and hypocrisy.
  • The propose changes further send out an entirely wrong message that will be regarded by certain states as a reaffirmation of their de facto immunity and risks Britain being seen as a safe haven for anyone suspected of committing grave international crimes.

What can I do about it?

Email or write to your MP to urge them to sign EDM 108

Follow the link to see if your MP has signed the EDM.  If they have not, email them requesting them to do so.  You can find out who your MP is and their contact details here.

10 reasons for voting to keep universal jurisdiction

  1. It’s an important principle that people can be charged in this country for crimes committed in their own country.  How else would war criminals, torturers or pirates ever face justice?
  2. Anyone can ask a judge to issue an arrest warrant if they have sufficient evidence. Only the police can make the arrest. Only the DPP can prosecute. But the right to ask is a democratic safeguard to stop us becoming a safe haven for war criminals.
  3. It’s very hard to get an arrest warrant. There have to be affidavits from victims, substantial evidence that the suspect was personally responsible and it has to heard by a specialist senior judge in Westminster.
  4. If we give the DPP a power of veto over arrest warrants, won’t it just be used to protect our friends? After all, our own minister said the reason for changing the law was “because Israel is a close friend”.
  5. DPPs are appointed and supervised by the Attorney General. They meet regularly to discuss prosecutions. The current DPP may be irreproachable, but as a system this would open the law to political interference.
  6. Arrest warrant hearings can take place at short notice when a war crimes suspect is visiting the UK. By the time the DPP acts the suspect will be gone. Why not leave it to the judge? They can act quickly.
  7. Universal jurisdiction has no effect on our ability to broker peace negotiations in the Middle East or anywhere else. Ministers and diplomats are immune from arrest.
  8. We have used universal jurisdiction to arrest Bosnians, Rwandans and Afghans. How can we use it against them but not allow it to be used against Israelis?  Isn’t that double standards?
  9. The biggest cause of hatred against the West is the perception that international law is applied only when it suits the West and never against Israel.
  10. Why undermine one of the oldest civil liberties – the right of the citizen to seek a summons or arrest warrant – when there are many simpler ways of guaranteeing that no one will be arrested on flimsy evidence (eg require notice to the DPP, raise the evidence threshold). Shouldn’t there be a judicial review of alternatives as pledged by the Lib Dem manifesto?

Guardian Letter – Arrest warrants for alleged war crimes
Thursday 2 December 2010

We are appalled to learn that the government is pressing ahead with ill-considered restrictions on judicial powers to order the arrest of suspected war criminals. Not only is it morally right, but it is also our international obligation to bring war criminals to justice, wherever their crimes were committed. The government’s claim that arrest warrants are handed out on the basis of “flimsy evidence” is not backed by evidence. The experienced senior district judges who hear the very few cases of this kind have only issued warrants where there is serious evidence that a war crime may have been committed and that the suspect has a case to answer. It is deeply insulting to the knowledge and expertise of these judges to suggest that they would issue warrants on the basis of flimsy evidence.

It is a long-established right for individuals to apply for an arrest warrant to be issued, even if they cannot make the arrest or bring the prosecution themselves. This allows the courts to act quickly when a suspected war criminal is in this country. Requiring the prior consent of the director of public prosecutions before an arrest warrant can be issued introduces delay, making it easy for the suspect to leave the country, and risks introducing political interference. With all due respect to current incumbents, the DPP is after all appointed and supervised by the attorney general who is a government minister. We urge all parliamentary political parties to reject these changes.

Sir Geoffrey Bindman Bindmans

LLP Michael Mansfield QC

James Lewis QC

Joel Bennathan QC

Bob Marshall-Andrews QC

Steve Kamlish QC

Lionel Blackman Chairman, the Solicitors’ International Human Rights Group

Daniel Machover Chair, Lawyers for Palestinian Human Rights

Carla Ferstman Director, Redress

Tayab Ali Partner, Irvine Thanvi Natas solicitors

Simon Natas Partner, Irvine Thanvi Natas solicitors

Andrew Katzen Partner, Hickman and Rose

Anna Mazzola Partner, Hickman and Rose

Ole Hansen Partner, Hansen Palomares

Ellie Reeves

Farhaz Khan

Jennifer Horne-Roberts

Sebastian Gardiner

Muhammad Khan

Samuel Townend

Martyn Day

John R.W.D. Jones

Mark McDonald

Michelle Harris

David Williams

Ravi Naik

Karen Mitchell

Stephen Woolford

Rachel Bayliss

Richard Burgon

Andrew Gray

Reuben Greenwood

Clayton Williams

Stephen Morrison

Ranjit Sond

William Seymour

Nicola Welchman

Jeeva Sethu

Ian Cross

Gazzali Mohideen

Jahid Rahman

Henrietta Phillips

Paul Troop

Background Information

In September 2009 lawyers representing 16 Palestinians applied for an arrest warrant for the Israeli defence minister Ehud Barak during a visit to the UK. However, the Foreign Office upgraded his status to ‘special status’ to give him diplomatic immunity from arrest.  In December 2009, an arrest warrant was issued in the UK for Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni, who was due to visit London but decided against a visit.

On 4 March 2010, the Justice Secretary Jack Straw set out changes to the law governing the issue of arrest warrants in respect of certain specified universal jurisdiction offences. However, recognising the controversial nature of the proposed changes, Mr Straw indicated that he would undertake a brief consultation prior to legislating. Subsequently, any legislation implementing changes to the private prosecution element would not able to be brought forward until after the 2010 general election.