Ken Clarke moves to block war crimes prosecutions

The likes of Henry Kissinger, Tzipi Livni and Ehud Barak will sleep a little easier tonight.

You'll remember the diplomatic spat last year after a British court issued an arrest warrant against the Israeli former foreign minister Tzipi Livni on charges of war crimes committed during Israel's "Operation Cast Lead" offensive against Gaza.

The warrant was withdrawn after Livni cancelled a planned trip to Britain but William Hague, then shadow foreign secretary, concluded that the affair was a disgrace.

"We cannot have a position where Israeli politicians feel they cannot visit this country," he said recently. "The situation is unsatisfactory [and] indefensible. It is absolutely my intention to act speedily."

Now, the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, has announced that the Crown Prosecution Service will be able to block private prosecutions for war crimes, dramatically reducing the possibility that suspected war criminals such as Henry Kissinger, Ehud Barak and Livni could be brought to justice in Britain.

Here is Clarke's statement:

Our commitment to our international obligations and to ensuring that there is no impunity for those accused of crimes of universal jurisdiction is unwavering. It is important, however, that universal jurisdiction cases should be proceeded with in this country only on the basis of solid evidence that is likely to lead to a successful prosecution -- otherwise there is a risk of damaging our ability to help in conflict resolution or to pursue a coherent foreign policy. The government has concluded, after careful consideration, that it would be appropriate to 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.

In an age of universal jurisdiction, it is shameful to see Clarke in effect argue that the "national interest" means British courts should avoid pursuing suspected war criminals. Hague may protest that foreign politicians should never feel unable to visit Britain, but it would be more accurate to say that foreign politicians should never feel able to commit war crimes with impunity.

Among those who opposed Labour's attempt to introduce a similar law were Vince Cable and Chris Huhne, both now cabinet ministers. But will they speak up for universal justice and human rights? The evidence of recent months suggests not.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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She knew every trick to get a home visit – but this time I had come prepared

 Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone.

I first came across Verenice a couple of years ago when I was on duty at the out-of-hours service.

“I’m a diabetic,” she told me, “and I’m feeling really poorly.” She detailed a litany of symptoms. I said I’d be round straight away.

What sounded worrying on the phone proved very different in Verenice’s smoke-fugged sitting room. She was comfortable and chatty, she had no fever or sign of illness, and her blood sugar was well controlled. In fact, she looked remarkably well. As I tried to draw the visit to a close, she began to regale me with complaints about her own GP: how he neglected her needs, dismissed her symptoms, refused to take her calls.

It sounded unlikely, but I listened sympathetically and with an open mind. Bit by bit, other professionals were brought into the frame: persecutory social workers, vindictive housing officers, corrupt policemen, and a particularly odious psychiatrist who’d had her locked up in hospital for months and had recently discharged her to live in this new, hateful bungalow.

By the time she had told me about her sit-in at the local newspaper’s offices – to try to force reporters to cover her story – and described her attempts to get arrested so that she could go to court and tell a judge about the whole saga, it was clear Verenice wasn’t interacting with the world in quite the same way as the rest of us.

It’s a delicate path to tread, extricating oneself from such a situation. The mental health issues could safely be left to her usual daytime team to follow up, so my task was to get out of the door without further inflaming the perceptions of neglect and maltreatment. It didn’t go too well to start with. Her voice got louder and louder: was I, too, going to do nothing to help? Couldn’t I see she was really ill? I’d be sorry when she didn’t wake up the next morning.

What worked fantastically was asking her what she actually wanted me to do. Her first stab – to get her rehoused to her old area as an emergency that evening – was so beyond the plausible that even she seemed able to accept my protestations of impotence. When I asked her again, suddenly all the heat went out of her voice. She said she didn’t think she had any food; could I get her something to eat? A swift check revealed a fridge and cupboards stocked with the basics. I gave her some menu suggestions, but drew the line at preparing the meal myself. By then, she seemed meekly willing to allow me to go.

We’ve had many out-of-hours conversations since. For all her strangeness, she is wily, and knows the medical gambits to play in order to trigger a home visit. Having been conned into another couple of fruitless house calls, I now parry the proffered symptoms and generally get to the heart of the matter on the phone. It usually revolves around food. Could I bring some bread and milk? She’s got no phone credit left; could I call the Chinese and order her a home delivery?

She came up on the screen again recently. I rang, and she spoke of excruciating ear pain, discharge and fever. I sighed, accepting defeat: with that story I’d no choice but to go round. Acting on an inkling, though, I popped to the drug cupboard first.

Predictably enough, when I arrived at Verenice’s I found her smiling away and puffing on a Benson, with a normal temperature, pristine ears and perfect blood glucose.

“Well,” I said, “whatever’s causing your ear to hurt is a medical mystery. Take some paracetamol and I’m sure it’ll be fine in the morning.”

There was a flash of triumph in her eyes. “Ah, but doctor, I haven’t got any. Could you –”

Before she could finish, I produced a pack of paracetamol from my pocket and dropped it on her lap. She looked at me with surprise and admiration. She may have suckered me round again, but I’d managed to second-guess her. I was back out of the door in under five minutes. A score-draw. 

Phil Whitaker is a GP and an award-winning author. His fifth novel, “Sister Sebastian’s Library”, will be published by Salt in September

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain