The failure to uphold Britain's obligations towards universal jurisdiction were demonstrated this week when Tzipi Livni met with Foreign Secretary William Hague in London and managed to avoid arrest for alleged war crimes. Livni's previous, disrupted, visit to London in late 2009 was the catalyst for the British government's move to change the law on universal jurisdiction. The then Labour government began to make changes to universal jurisdiction and these were put into effect by the Coalition with the recent Royal Assent for the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill. The changes to the law mean that the Director of Public Prosecutions has to give consent to any application for an arrest warrant with prima facie evidence, whereby previously any citizen could apply to Westminster Magistrates Court for such a warrant.
Livni and other suspected war criminals have postponed visits to London for fear of arrest and, backed by the influential pro-Israel Lobby, had pushed the British government to effect changes to the law on universal jurisdiction. With both the Coalition Government and the Labour Party supporting these changes, ex-Foreign Minister Livni's visit to London was inevitable. William Hague said that he was "delighted" to welcome Ms Livni to London at a critical moment for the Middle East. "It was an appalling situation when political abuse of our legal procedures prevented people like Mrs Livni from travelling legitimately to the UK," he added. "We have dealt with this urgently as we promised to on coming to office."
Despite the change in the law, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office decided to pre-empt a private application for an arrest warrant against Livni made by Hickman and Rose Solicitors and the Palestinian Centre for Human Rights on behalf of a Palestinian civilian war crimes victim. The application was refused when the FCO afforded Livni "special mission" status. This placed Livni under diplomatic immunity during her visit to London and protected her from arrest. The Crown Prosecution Service released a statement confirming her special status and went on to note that the Director of Public Prosecutions had in fact consulted the Attorney General when making his decision as to whether or not to give his consent to a private application for an arrest warrant. The FCO clearly suspected that there was sufficient evidence for a warrant to be issued and rushed through the "special mission" order.
Thus, despite prima facie evidence of war crimes found by the UN Fact Finding Mission following Israel's Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9, Tzipi Livni has been successful in avoiding arrest with the full assistance of the British government. The diplomatic immunity given to Livni kept her afloat in a rising tide of war crimes allegations and therein lies the hypocrisy. Whilst the DPP should have acted independently, he sought the advice of a political figure, the Attorney General, who had actually been thanked personally by an Israeli embassy official at the Conservative Party Conference for ensuring that legislative changes had been made in order to protect Israeli war criminals. When Ehud Barak, the former Israeli Prime Minister (and current Defence Minister), came to Britain to attend the 2009Labour Party Conference, the FCO thwarted an arrest warrant by claiming Barak was on a diplomatic visit and was therefore protected by diplomatic immunity.
Although the application of universal jurisdiction should be free from political interference the "special mission" status of Livni's visit was a clear sign that the British government will go to any lengths to protect its friends. The use of this status means that despite Britain still being a signatory to the Geneva Convention, the British government will be selective over who it wants to arrest for war crimes, and when that will be done. A law that by description should be universal is now subject to the whim of politicians. Responding to criticism on twitter, Mike Gapes MP – who supported the change to universal jurisdiction – claimed that war criminals could still be held to account in the UK; that's true, but not if they are Israelis.
Tayab Ali, a solicitor who campaigned against the changes to universal jurisdiction commented: "It is very sad that the allegations levelled against Tzipi Livni that she is a war criminal will not be tested in a court of law. It is important to note that the DPP did not make a decision based on evidence but instead was forced into this position as a result of Livni being given 'Special Mission' immunity status. It is shameful that the British government should choose to protect those suspected of war crimes in this way."
Clearly, the government can now pick and choose which war criminals should be prosecuted and which should be protected – a worrying sign that any war criminal who is a "friend of the UK" is unlikely to face justice. Tzipi Livni's "special mission" was simply to avoid arrest. Thanks to the British government's abandonment of its legal obligation to pursue war criminal suspects, her mission was successful.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.