Strong reaction to universal jurisdiction rule change

29 July 2010 by

He can come now

The proposed change to the rules for bringing on who can apply for international war crimes arrest warrants has predictably generated some strong reactions

The changes will make it necessary to get the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions before an arrest warrant can be granted. The Ministry of Justice say they are changing the rules in order to prevent arrests happening after the presentation of “flimsy” evidence. Those who fear arrest under the current system range from Israeli ministers to the Pope.

Commentators have been split on the issue. A group of campaigners have also written to the Guardian today arguing that “Since we call on other countries to uphold human rights and international law, our legal system also has to abide by those principles, in particular bringing to justice those responsible for genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity, torture and hostage-taking”.

Michael Mansfield QC, a leading barrister, also writes in the Guardian:

In these circumstances [the Israeli flotilla raid], where states and governments have failed to ensure compliance with the norms of international law and justice, it is absolutely vital that the private citizen should have the right to instigate the arrest of a transgressor. This is why the justice secretary’s recent announcement that the coalition intends to circumscribe the doctrine of universal jurisdiction, so that it will be far more difficult to bring anyone accused of serious human rights violations before the courts, is such a retrograde step.

Meanwhile, Joshua Rozenberg makes the opposite point, arguing that the changes will actually safeguard universal jurisdiction:

Under Labour’s plans, the only people who could have obtained an arrest warrant for an offence of universal jurisdiction would have been the director of public prosecutions and law officers. Under the coalition’s proposals, however, a private prosecutor would be able to obtain an arrest warrant, provided the DPP had given consent.

He responds directly to Michael Mansfield’s argument that the idea that arrests will only take place if it is likely to lead to a prosecution, asking “Why should defendants be arrested in Britain if there is no chance that they will be tried here? Mansfield has no answer beyond the vague suggestion that fear of arrest in Britain, though not prosecution, would somehow deter war crimes.”

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