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Universal Jurisdiction

Volume 526: debated on Tuesday 29 March 2011

Requiring the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions before an arrest warrant can be issued does not affect in any way the principle of universal jurisdiction or the Government’s commitment to that principle in the future. The reason for making this change is that at present a warrant can be issued where there is no realistic prospect of a viable prosecution.

As the Lord Chancellor will know, universal jurisdiction is an ancient civil right: it is the right of an individual citizen to take court action against somebody suspected of committing a war crime. In the last 10 years, only 10 such applications for arrest warrants have been made, and only two of them were successful. As the Lord Chancellor will be aware, these arrest warrants are issued by the chief district judge for the London petty sessional area. In light of the fact that only two of these applications have been successful, why are the Government considering abolishing this ancient principle?

It is not being abolished. First, universal jurisdiction is not as old as suggested, but we welcome the application for, and enforcement of, universal jurisdiction here just as much as the previous Government did. The trouble at present is that the test for issuing an arrest warrant is so low that it is possible for a warrant to be issued when there is not the faintest chance of any serious prosecution going ahead. While I understand the feelings behind some of the applications, there is no doubt that publicity is being sought rather more than a prosecution, and the likely targets are people such as Israeli or Sri Lankan politicians coming here whom dissident groups want to be arrested. The DPP can act promptly, and we will enforce the law when there is a genuine case for a prosecution. Indeed, one Afghan warlord has been successfully prosecuted in this country and is currently in prison.

In the DPP’s evidence to the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Public Bill Committee, he said about assessing such applications:

“We have people who can work around the clock and we have enough trained people so that someone is always available.”––[Official Report, Police Reform and Social Responsibility Public Bill Committee, 20 January 2011; c. 126, Q241.]

Can the Lord Chancellor confirm that it will be possible for cases to be submitted in advance of a suspect travelling to the UK so that decisions can be made in time to act?

I will check with the DPP, but I am almost certain he will confirm that that is the case, because I have had assurances from his officials that they are ready to act very quickly. In a proper case, they should act quickly and a warrant should be issued, but at present the fact that warrants can be comparatively easily sought and occasionally obtained is deterring people from coming to this country who are politically controversial but probably not guilty of any war crime or crime against humanity. Indeed, over the years attempts have been made to arrest people such as Henry Kissinger.

The Foreign Secretary gave a very direct answer to my question last week on the same subject. He explained that the Government are changing the law in order to be able to talk to the Israeli politician Tzipi Livni. Does the Justice Secretary really think the request of one foreign Government is a good enough reason for changing the entire law in the UK?

The case of Tzipi Livni is a very good example of why the law needed to be changed. She was the leader of the opposition when an attempt was made to get an arrest warrant. It was believed she was in this country, but in fact she was not. However, she was a leading Israeli politician coming here for political purposes, and it is in the interests of our country that we have negotiations and discussions with a wide range of political representatives from many countries. If guilty of war crimes, they will be prosecuted, but we put people off coming here if they are liable to have publicity-conscious arrest warrants served on them.