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The warrant was withdrawn after Livni cancelled a planned trip to Britain but William Hague, then shadow foreign secretary, concluded that the affair was a disgrace.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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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.