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Israeli Officials: Arrest Warrants

Volume 716: debated on Tuesday 19 January 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what was the outcome of their consideration on preventing the issuing of arrest warrants for senior Israelis visiting the United Kingdom.

My Lords, Hamas is an Islamist organisation which does not deal gently with its rivals, the opposition in Gaza. Is it not therefore absurd that it can work with friendly lawyers to obtain an ex parte arrest warrant, in effect preventing the visit to the UK of the leader of the opposition of a friendly and democratic ally? The Government have said for some time that they are looking urgently at this matter. Is it true, as reported, that the Government will give the Attorney-General the power to veto similar applications which harm our diplomatic relations? If so, would that need primary legislation?

My Lords, as I said a moment ago, no decisions have yet been made on this matter. As for any proposal to limit universal jurisdiction, as a party to certain international conventions, the United Kingdom has legislated to give the courts jurisdiction over some grave offences whether they were committed in the UK or elsewhere, or whether by UK nationals or otherwise. We have no intention of restricting what is called universal jurisdiction. Israel is a strategic partner and a close friend of the United Kingdom. We are determined to protect and develop these ties. Israeli leaders, like leaders from other countries, must be able to visit and have a proper dialogue with the British Government.

My Lords, is this farcical legal situation, which has implications for the travel plans, I suggest, also of Mr Blair, not partly of the Government’s own making? Were the Government not repeatedly warned during proceedings on the International Criminal Court Bill that the imposition of universal jurisdiction had profound implications for diplomacy and would make conflict resolution in certain parts of the world more difficult? Some people in the UN are arguing that that is happening with Sudan. If we are determined to have these laws, surely it must be a principle that they are enforced not by the Foreign Secretary or politicians, but by the courts and the courts alone.

My Lords, the problem arises because some offences, including war crimes under the Geneva Conventions Act 1957, can be tried in English courts even where the offence was committed outside the United Kingdom by a person who is not a UK national. It is open to anyone to apply to a magistrate for an arrest warrant in respect of such an offence against a person who is present in the country. While prosecution of these offences requires the consent of the Attorney-General, consent need not have been given before an arrest warrant is issued. All that is necessary is that there is prima facie evidence, which is much less than would be essential for the Attorney-General to instigate a prosecution.

My Lords, is this not about the separation of legal and political powers? Yet the Foreign Secretary and the Attorney-General apologised to the Israelis and said that they will seek to change our law on war crimes. Political pressure has had an effect on Attorneys-General in the past, with the Iraq invasion and the BAE prosecution. Will the Minister therefore guarantee that no change will be made to this law because of political pressure?

This is a difficult issue, as it would be for any Government. It arises because, if one is to arrest on warrant, that does not require the Attorney’s consent; if one is to arrest on summons, it does. It is a problem. There are various arguments on both sides; those have already been put in the couple of minutes that we have been debating the matter this afternoon. Of course political pressure will not play a part in our decision. What matters is getting this difficult issue sorted out properly.

Does the Minister accept that it is anomalous that a prosecution may be brought in this context only with the consent of the Attorney-General yet an arrest warrant may be issued without the consent of the Attorney-General? That will inevitably have the effect of deterring people from coming here who will not be prosecuted because the Attorney will not give her consent, which will damage the ability of politicians to come to this country for the purpose of discussing the peace process, and it will prevent other persons—military officials and security officials—coming here to aid this country in the fight against terrorism.

It is an anomaly set up by Section 25(2) of the Prosecution of Offences Act 1985. It is an anomaly, but it is also, as the law stands, the right of a citizen to bring prima facie evidence before a magistrate in order to effect an arrest. That is the law of the land. What we must consider is whether it ought to be altered.

Does my noble friend agree that this delay is unconscionable and intensely damaging to the interests of this country and Israel? Is he aware that Israeli leaders past and present are deterred from coming to this country?

My Lords, of course it does not affect those currently in the Israeli Government, although it did affect Mrs Livni, who, as has already been said, is a most distinguished leader of the opposition in Israel. I repeat that we have close relations with Israel and intend to continue to do so. The Israelis of course understand that we have a difficulty with our law here. We must get it right. It is more important to take time getting it right than to get it wrong.

I do not get up every day. Can the Minister say what the Government’s reaction was to the striking full-page advert in the Times at the beginning of December from respected members of the international Jewish community in Britain and elsewhere saying that Israel should submit to war crimes trials?

I am sure that the Government as a whole looked carefully and saw the advertisement; I certainly did. However, I am sure that there was no general reaction to it.

Does the Minister not agree that the sweet words of Hamas are not entirely balanced by its deeds in this matter? Is he aware that, since the fighting ended in Gaza some 11 months ago, 284 rockets and mortar bombs have been fired at the towns and cities of southern Israel, each with the malicious desire and expectation that it would bring about death and destruction?

I have read about what happened last year in Gaza and what happened to citizens both of Israel and in Gaza. It is certainly not my job to comment on that at this Dispatch Box this afternoon.