Britain's legal system has had a tough rap in recent weeks. As if the furore about draconian libel laws wasn't enough, a diplomatic storm appears to be brewing over reports that a British court issued an arrest warrant against the Israeli opposition leader, Tzipi Livni, for war crimes in Israel's offensive against Gaza last year.
The Guardian reported yesterday that Westminster Magistrates' Court issued the warrant at the request of lawyers acting on behalf of some Palestinian victims of the conflict. Livni, a former foreign minister, was in the war cabinet for "Operation Cast Lead", which ruined infrastructure in Gaza and killed between 1,100 and 1,400 Palestinians.
Ron Prosor, Israel's ambassador to Britain, told Israeli army radio that Britain should change the law allowing groups to pursue charges against non-citizens for crimes outside the UK:
The current situation has become intolerable; it is time that it changes. I am convinced that the British government will understand that it is time to react and not content itself with declarations.
But the warrant is thought to be part of an international effort to pursue alleged war crimes under universal jurisdiction. Bill Bowring, a professor of law at the University of London, told al-Jazeera English:
This has happened before. It's under quite old legislation, under the fourth Geneva Convention of 1949. Basically what it says is that if a person anywhere in the world commits grave breaches against civilians then that person should be arrested and prosecuted wherever they turn up in the world.
This move could have major implications. As a former minister, Livni is no longer protected by diplomatic immunity. The same is true of former prime minister Ehud Barak. Sources report that international travel is increasingly a matter of thought for Israeli public figures.
The Foreign Office, meanwhile, issued a slightly panicked-sounding statement:
The UK is determined to do all it can to promote peace in the Middle East and to be a strategic partner of Israel. To do this, Israel's leaders need to be able to come to the UK for talks with the British government. We are looking urgently at the implications of this case.
As the Israeli vice-premier Silvan Shalom said, reacting to the "scandalous" news: "Where Cast Lead is concerned, we are all Tzipi Livni."
The independence of the courts is supposedly sacrosanct, but this move could have significant diplomatic repercussions. As the high court faces a challenge from the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, it will be interesting to see whether the government allows this particular trend to continue.