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Open Letter to Prime Minister Gordon Brown

April 19, 2014 at 12:02 pm

Dear Prime Minister, 

As you are no doubt aware, government promises to make changes to British universal jurisdiction laws following the issue of an arrest warrant for former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni last December have justifiably come under fierce criticism from human rights organisations and legal bodies. Evidence found by the United Nations fact-finding mission into the brutal assault on Gaza last year led it to conclude that Israeli forces had committed war crimes and possible crimes against humanity. In addition, Israeli military planners had followed a doctrine of causing massive damage, destruction and suffering to the civilian population deliberately, which gave rise to individual criminal responsibility. As a senior planner of Operation Cast Lead in 2008/9, which claimed the lives of over 1,400 individuals, including 300 children, the testimony of the UN provided damning and irrefutable prima facie evidence against Ms. Livni.

However, in your article in the Daily Telegraph, you state that your primary concern is whether British purpose is best served by a process where “an arrest warrant for the gravest crimes can be issued on the slightest evidence.” You then go on to encourage individuals and organizations with “genuine grounds” [emphases added] for allegations of offences that fall under universal jurisdiction, to come forward with them to the police. Do you, Mr. Brown, not consider evidence supplied by a United Nations fact-finding mission sufficient?

The mention of a requirement for the process by which Britain takes action which needs to “guarantee the best results” and to bring “the risk of arrest into closer alignment with the risk of prosecution” conveys the message that the UK will only “bring cases based on evidence of sufficient strength to convince the Director of Public Prosecutions that there is a credible case.” In the House of Commons, the Justice Secretary said, “We remain absolutely committed to upholding the principles of universal jurisdiction, so that there can be no impunity for those suspected of such grave offences.” Note the word “suspected”; there is never any guarantee that prosecutions will always succeed, for any crime, but when someone is suspected of something their guilt will be determined in a properly conducted trial. What your government is proposing is tantamount to placing the onus on the victim to prove the guilt of the suspect even before a warrant can be issued. This is an outrageous state of affairs for a government that still claims to “remain absolutely committed to upholding the principles of universal jurisdiction”.

According to the Ministry of Justice, only about two warrants have been successfully issued under our universal jurisdiction law. This is perhaps due to the narrow range of offences that fall within its remit, as well the requisite seriousness of those offences. What is quite clear is that there has been no case for the evidential basis upon which arrest warrants are issued to be made tougher or to restrict the right to prosecute to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) alone. Going via the CPS will, of course, delay the issue of arrest warrants; this “didn’t appear to be something that [one of your ministers at the Foreign Office] had thought of”, when asked to comment by Amnesty International.

Your claim that there are political motives behind many of these universal jurisdiction cases is baseless. Barrister Paul Troop refutes such claims and, having himself represented victims of torture and war crimes in many different jurisdictions, he says that “these cases are brought by the victims themselves, they are kept confidential and the evidence is gathered clearly”. Any allegation that the cases are swayed by the pressure of lobby groups or otherwise is a red herring. Furthermore, even if the universal jurisdiction cases brought by private citizens were “politically-motivated” as you claim, are you not aware that the Attorney General has to give consent for the prosecution to be carried forward? Cases based on flimsy evidence couldn’t possibly proceed.

The strength of the universal jurisdiction law in Britain lies in the fact that the power to bring a case forward is a private citizen’s right, which should not be removed by pressure from powerful lobbies or interest groups. Article 7(2) of the United Nations Geneva Convention against Torture (UNCAT) imposes no distinction between domestic and international serious offences. Mr. Troop believes that the removal of a private citizen’s right to petition the court for an arrest warrant denies the victims of torture access to due process and effectively means that their case is treated differently to other serious domestic offences, something which contravenes the UNCAT.

Mr. Brown, you place significant emphasis on the political nature of warrants issued under universal jurisdiction; was the Goldstone report politically motivated? How about the deaths of those 300 children in Gaza? Moreover, has the campaign to change our law been politically motivated? Or are we going to change our laws because of what one senior politician has called the “rash promises” made by your government to the Israelis?

Our responsibility to intervene in countries where war crimes are being committed and “to prosecute or extradite suspected war criminals – regardless of their status or power” cannot be limited only to the likes of the Afghan warlord Faryadi Zardad who fled to London on a fake passport. It is hypocrisy to assert that “it is our moral duty to ensure that there is no hiding place for those suspected of the most serious international crimes”, yet apply a completely different standard when the crime falls at the feet of a state with which you feel you must engage or have a close affinity. What is your opinion about the Goldstone Report, Prime Minister?

“Britain cannot afford to have its standing in the world compromised for the sake of tolerating such [politically motivated] gestures,” you claim. On the contrary, Britain needs to take a strong and independent position on this issue if we are to re-assert our standing within the international community on issues of international law. Not as a country whose “allies” publicly ridicule the symbols of our sovereignty and abuse our trust without fear of being called to account for their actions, and still yet feel that they can demand changes to our laws in their favour; ‑ and, indeed, succeed in having such outrageous demands met! We need to re-assert ourselves as a country that is unwilling to be bullied into drafting our laws to suit an alien country at the expense of the human rights and civil liberties of Britons and vulnerable members of the international community.

Yours sincerely,