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Should the prime minister and foreign secretary apologise for the actions of the British judiciary?

The last few days have seen an uproar emanating from Whitehall, including both the British and Israeli media. The furore surrounds the issuing of an arrest warrant for former Israeli foreign minister, Tzipi Livni and the subsequent responses from the government.

Human rights lawyers representing Palestinian victims of the Israeli crimes committed one year ago were granted a warrant for the arrest of Livni under British Universal Jurisdiction laws. Livni, who had been scheduled to speak at an event on the weekend, later claimed that she had cancelled her trip two weeks prior to the warrant being issued, however other reports have emerged that she feared the lawyers would be successful in their endeavours.

What makes this case even more interesting is the reaction from the British government, who were wholly unaware at the time of any investigation taking place. Coming out with red faces, government officials condemned the Westminster magistrates’ court, stating that the government were ‘looking urgently at ways in which the UK system might be changed in order to avoid this sort of situation arising again’.


The Israeli government was equally critical and supercilious in its response, with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu decrying the ‘absurdity’ of anyone even contemplating holding Israeli officials and soldiers to ‘be summoned to the defendants’ chair’. Britain’s ambassador was officially ‘summoned’ before the Foreign Ministry, where Israeli officials talked about their ‘dismay’ and the issues of national security that may arise if similar incidents were to occur.

Following in a similar pattern, the pro-Israeli media within the UK and Israel are once again flying the victimisation flag. In a seemingly hysterical commentary, The Times described the warrant as ‘politicised campaign to harass the statesmen of a democracy’ claiming it was not ‘merely frivolous: it is repugnant’. The Jewish Chronicle, and the Israeli media also waded in with commentaries on how the use of ‘lawfare‘ was seeking to ‘humiliate the Jewish state’ and were wasting precious time when Britain could instead be focussing its energy on the Middle East peace process.

All this panic culminated in Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, apologising in a telephone call to Tzipi Livni in which he ‘expressed his total objections to the arrest warrant’ and that she would ‘always be welcome’ into the UK.

The political and media furore surrounding this issue is unprecedented. Possible reasons behind these responses may be two-fold. First, this episode has once again highlighted the strength of the Israeli lobby in British politics. Not only has the right-wing press been inundated with anger and criticism of the arrest warrant from government officials and the media, but the conceited audacity of the Israeli officials and their supporters in believing that no one has the right to question their actions is beyond disbelief. Second, the response may be a reaction to a promise made by Miliband to Israel in September 2008, where he promised to set in motion the changes in law that currently allows private citizens to bring war-crime charges against Israeli officials and soldiers. In an unofficial message to Livni in March 2009 reported in the Jewish Chronicle, Miliband’s office explained that ‘due to the public mood in Britain following the Gaza operation there would be no change in legislation as ‘it would be difficult to ensure a majority’ support in parliament. Perhaps Miliband did not want to heavily rely on Conservative support for the legislation and thus he dropped any changes at the time. Stephen Pollard, (the JC Political Editor) has since accused Miliband of being a ‘hypocrite’, reneging on his earlier promise to Livni and the Israeli government.

When has the British government ever apologised to another government on a policy matter? The government executives have no authority on legal issues and as John McHugo, Chair of Liberal Democrats Friends of Palestine, commented to the Middle East Monitor, it ‘is an outrageous interference by the government in a purely judicial matter’. Embodied within the universal jurisdiction legislation are universal laws that should be applied independent of political agendas and applied to all (such as in Livni’s case), if this is not done, the only forum of seeking justice for victims of war crimes is at stake.

We cannot allow British law to follow the footsteps of universal jurisdiction reforms in Belgium, which are also currently under threat in Spain. This would only undermine international law and discredit the British governments’ recent endorsement of international human rights law, which Miliband signed on December 8, 2009, together with his fellow EU foreign ministers, promising to ‘continue to do its utmost to promote an international order where no state or individual is above the law and no person is outside the protection of the law.’

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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