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The warrant was withdrawn after Livni cancelled a planned trip to Britain but William Hague, then shadow foreign secretary, concluded that the affair was a disgrace.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