JCHR report criticises Government efforts to change universal jurisdiction law
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Tuesday May 10 2011
|The Joint Committee on Human Rights today published its report scrutinizing the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill, including proposed changes to the law on universal jurisdiction contained therein.
The extant provisions in UK law on universal jurisdiction have come under intense criticism from Israel and the pro-Israel lobby after an arrest warrant was issued against Tzipi Livni in December 2009 on allegations of war crimes committed during Israel’s brutal aggression against Gaza in Dec 2008 – Jan 2009. The previous Labour government was heavily lobbied to pass a change in the law before the General Election in May 2010. The Conservative Party in its electoral campaign pledged to change the law. A pledge it hopes to fulfil through passage of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill.
The Committee argues that the Bill raises significant human rights issues which warrant further scrutiny, and asks “whether the proposal to require the consent of the DPP for arrest warrants in connection with the private prosecution of international crimes is a retrograde step in the ability of the UK to implement its obligations in international criminal law to prosecute international crimes.”
The report states:
“We are concerned that the decision to take this unique step in involving the DPP in a preliminary step towards private prosecution has been made without clear evidence that the application of the ordinary criminal law has led to undue hardship or damage to the public interest. It appears that arrest warrants in connection with private prosecutions of universal jurisdiction offences are rare. In those cases which do arise, it appears that they are generally unsuccessful. Although crimes of universal jurisdiction are in themselves unusual within the domestic legal system, this jurisdiction generally only attaches to the most-grave crimes which the UK is obliged or authorised by international law to prosecute on this basis.
“We understand that, while the Government may wish to protect individuals from undue arrest (which would engage the individual right to liberty and the right to respect for private life), existing safeguards already limit the impact on the individual, including oversight by a Magistrate and the application of State and diplomatic immunity. The existing requirement of prior judicial authorisation is already a very significant safeguard against the abuse or arbitrary exercise of the power to arrest and we note that in practice this judicial control is exercised by a senior and experienced district judge. The relevant judge will examine any possible claim to diplomatic or State immunity. The Attorney General’s existing power to stop a prosecution if it is against the public interest is another important safeguard.
“If a prosecution is ill-founded and the Attorney General exercises his power to stop it, then clearly the individual concerned should be released promptly. By contrast, taking measures which create a more limited opportunity for prosecution appears to be a retrograde step in connection with the international obligations which require these offences to be prosecuted. Before this change is to be approved, we recommend that the Minister should at least be required to show how the Government intends to illustrate its ongoing commitment to the public investigation and prosecution of these offences. It is of some concern that, while the DPP explained that the most positive step towards securing a successful prosecution would be to involve the CPS at an early stage, NGOs previously involved in these cases have doubted the capacity and resources of the CPS to assist.”