Israeli politician and war crimes suspect Tzipi Livni once again evaded arrest this week, during a visit to London where she spoke at Fortune’s “Most Powerful Women International Summit.”
The former justice minister’s trip was granted ‘Special Mission’ status by the Foreign Office (FCO), thus giving her diplomatic immunity. She was similarly protected from arrest in 2011 and 2014.
According to Israeli media, because Livni’s “attendance at the recent women’s summit could have been considered a personal visit” – as opposed to a diplomatic one – she was considered “vulnerable to arrest.” Thus, in order to “pre-empt the problem”, Livni “arranged to meet with senior UK government officials” – and turned it into an “official visit.”
These circumstances of Livni being protected by diplomatic immunity open the FCO and UK government to accusations that the Special Mission status is being cynically used to protect war crimes suspects from accountability.
When I asked the FCO to confirm, a spokesperson stated that there are “no plans to publish further details about requests [for Special Mission status] that have been granted or refused”, citing “the confidentiality of diplomatic exchanges” for the refusal to comment.
In 2011, however, during a previous visit by Livni to the UK, a spokesperson was happy to confirm to me that the FCO had “consented to the visit…as a special mission and that she has been received as such.” It is unclear why the FCO has changed its policy on disclosure.
During her brief stay, Livni was interviewed for BBC Newsnight by Evan Davis, who asked her if she was afraid of arrest. Livni affirmed that she had again required diplomatic immunity, before elaborating on her responsibility for Israel’s 2008 attack on Gaza, so-called ‘Operation Cast Lead’.
Livni wrote in a subsequent Facebook post (thanks to Ofer Neiman for translation):
I said no. I am not afraid. And [I] am indeed responsible, and proud to be responsible, for acting on behalf of Israel against terror. If my parents were arrested and detained by the British government before Israel was established, then in a certain sense this is the same battle for the existence of Israel today as well. I make decisions and I am ready to pay the price for it.
The irony here is that for all her talk of being ready to ‘pay the price’, Livni has not risked a visit to the UK without diplomatic immunity since 2009, when a British court issued an arrest warrant for alleged war crimes – and Livni cancelled her trip.
Livni’s ‘official business’ this week was a meeting with FCO minister Tobias Ellwood, to whom she gave a copy of Israel’s report on ‘Operation Protective Edge’. As one Israeli journalist put it, it was “the meeting with Mr Ellwood” that “allowed Ms Livni to give her visit ‘special mission status’.”
As part of legal proceedings at the High Court in early 2011, the FCO defined a Special Mission as “a means to conduct ad hoc diplomacy in relation to specific international business.” Later that year, Alistair Burt said the FCO had “no prescribed formalities for consenting to a special mission, but such consent may be inferred from the circumstances of any given visit.”
In 2013, meanwhile, then-Foreign Secretary William Hague defined it as “a temporary mission, representing a state, which is sent by one state to another with the consent of the latter, in order to carry out official engagements on behalf of the sending state.”
Questions were already being asked about the FCO’s use of diplomatic immunity last year, when Livni visited London to speak at a Jewish National Fund event. At the time, The Guardian reported “growing concern over the government’s issuing of special mission status, and the secrecy surrounding such moves.” Livni’s visit this week can only further such concerns.