OPEN LETTER: Universal Jurisdiction

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UPDATE #1 – Monday 13/12/10

The police reform bill debate started at 6pm, watch live on BBC’s Democracy Live or BBC Parliament on Freeview 81, Freesat 201, Sky 504, Virgin 612.

Also, a letter was published in The Guardian today: “Grave dangers in police reform bill” – signed by Baroness Jenny Tonge, Jeremy Corbin MP, Michael Mansfield QC, Betty Hunter, Hugh Lanning, Gerald Kaufman MP and many others.

On Monday 13th December the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill will be debated in the Commons. Within the bill is Clause 151: “Arrest warrants : Restriction on issue of arrest warrants in private prosecutions”, which gives the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) a veto over whether or not an arrest warrant can be issued for war crime suspects.

As part of our effort to defeat this change, we have sent an open letter from Members of Reading PSC to Rob Wilson (Con), Member of Parliament for Reading East. The open letter appears below:

Dear Rob,

You are receiving this open letter on behalf of the members of the Reading branch of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC). We are sure you are aware of our organisation as you have met several of our members in the past to discuss our concerns about the treatment of Palestinians at the hands of the State of Israel.

Our organisation represents a wide spread of people in both Reading East and West. We are men and women. We are young and old. We are people of faith and no faith. We are the people of Reading.

We spend our time trying to raise awareness of the issues surrounding the catastrophe that has befallen the Palestinians, not because we enjoy it, but because we feel compelled by our conscience and simple human understanding and empathy to do so.

We understand that you are planning to support changes to the current Universal Jurisdiction laws in the UK. As we are sure you are aware, the current position is that a private individual may apply to a magistrate for an arrest warrant if a war crimes suspect is visiting the country or a visit is anticipated.

The issue of an arrest warrant for a war crime is decided only by specialist and legally qualified magistrates. In any case, the consent of the Attorney General is currently required for any prosecution to go ahead, but, in the absence of consent, a warrant may be issued if the magistrate considers that:

  1. there are reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence under such legislation has been committed;
  2. admissible evidence has been presented which (if uncontradicted) establishes the elements of the offence alleged;
  3. s/he has jurisdiction to issue the warrant and has ruled out the immunity of the suspect.

Any belief, therefore, that arrest warrants have ever been – or can still be – issued with little or no evidence to support a legitimate prosecution is a fundamental misconception of the existing law. If you think otherwise, we invite you to cite a single case in which an arrest warrant has been issued under Universal Jurisdiction law which could reasonably be considered an abuse of the existing system.

In the case of visiting Israeli ministers or leaders, the Goldstone Report, accepted by the UN, concluded that war crimes had been committed in Gaza by Israel during Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 – January 2009. It is not surprising, therefore, that a senior magistrate found there was enough evidence to warrant the arrest of former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni had she visited the UK.

The argument that we must allow elected ministers to visit the UK and be immune from our laws in order to engage them diplomatic talks is misleading. There is nothing, for instance, to stop British ministers from visiting the home countries of suspected war criminals where they are immune from prosecution. Additionally, the serving Prime Minister, Foreign Minister and Minister of Defence of any sovereign country can visit the UK under the principle of sovereign immunity.

Any attempt to involve the Attorney General in the decision to issue the arrest warrant would be a regressive step in many ways. You must surely agree that the independence of the judiciary in the UK from political interference is critical. In fact, your voting record, Rob, proves this. In the past you voted against giving Ministers the right to intervene in inquests. But you apparently now think that the Attorney General – not exactly a wholly independent branch of Government – should have the right to intervene in cases brought by private individuals against people reasonably suspected of war crimes. How do you explain or justify this stance given that there is no case that you can cite where an arrest warrant was issued under the principle of Universal Jurisdiction which was not a valid use of the legal process?

Having to wait for an Attorney General decision on issuing an arrest warrant will simply allow suspected war criminals time to flee the country as well as the possibility of political interference in the rule of law.

Our views are not outlandish. They are supported by many other respected Human Rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, International Federation for Human Rights, Global Witness, Justice and REDRESS who issued a joint statement saying they were:

“… gravely concerned that any changes to existing law and procedure will undermine the capacity of victims of serious international crimes to hold accountable alleged perpetrators who come within the UK’s jurisdiction by making all arrest decisions in such cases subject to political considerations rather than being based on the legal merits. Suspects may therefore find a safe haven in the UK, and the already considerable barriers to bringing such suspects to justice will be heightened.

Instead of making it more difficult to arrest with a view to prosecuting such suspects, the UK should be seeking to enhance its capacity to do so, and mooted legislative changes are a step entirely in the wrong direction.”

The Conservative party itself advocates the Big Society, a society where power is removed from a central political entity, and given to local people and communities. It seems it is fine for the general public to on the one hand ‘share the pain’ of budget cuts, but on the other they can not be trusted to share the responsibility of holding war criminals to account. A responsibility which you apparently wish to now restrict to a small but elite minority in Government.

In the the past the point has been made to us by you, Rob, to different members of our organisation, at different times, that not enough ‘pressure’ is being applied on parliament on the issues that we discuss with you. Please consider this letter as pressure. Please also consider the fact that the major Human Rights related organisations in the UK do not support any change to Universal Jurisdiction as pressure – and we know that they are undertaking to lobby MPs across the political spectrum. Consider the fact that no one has yet produced any example of a case where the existing Universal Jurisdiction law can be said to have been abused as further pressure upon your judgement.

We implore you to oppose any change to the law on Universal Jurisdiction on behalf of the people of Reading. We believe this is an issue that fundamentally alters the moral integrity of our country, and could well call your personal integrity into question should you support the changes.

Kind Regards,
Reading PSC
Sent via email @ 3.40pm Thursday December 9th, 2010

  • All replies to this letter will be posted on the Reading PSC website.
  • The Open Letter will also be sent to Alok Sharma, Member of Parliament for Reading West.


It is important that you send a message to YOUR MP asking them to vote against the proposed changes. PSC have set up an easy to use e-tool to allow you to send a model letter to your MP: click here…

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