If it aint broke: Ken Clarkes unwarranted war crimes fix

The other day I called a plumber to plug a leak in the kitchen we didn’t have. Before that I took my car to the garage to get them to check out an engine noise I couldn’t hear. Yes, and today I read that Justice Secretary Ken Clarke has announced a change to arrest warrant rules to fix a problem that doesn’t exist. 

OK, I made up the first two, but not the third. The government is proposing that in future if a suspected war criminal enters England or Wales anyone applying to a judge to get an arrest warrant issued will have to wait for the Director of Public Prosecutions to approve the decision.

The fear, of course, is that by this time the bird will have slipped the net. Peter Tatchell (himself a veteran of the far tougher citizen’s arrest approach) has said that adding another hurdle to the arrest process is a bad idea. I agree. War criminals are already pretty adept at evading justice, picking up whispers, getting tip-offs. The last thing we need is to encumber the system so that warlords on the run and undercover torturers get wind of arrest plans and promptly disappear.

If you were a war criminal or torturer seeking places to evade justice this is just the sort of measure about which you’d be glad to hear. “Ah, another little brake on any chance of a quick arrest. Another place I can probably spend time in without too much trouble.” As Amnesty’s Christopher Keith Hall says, it’s the cumulative effect of these measures that creates impunity and invulnerability where there should be arrest and investigation (witness the current phenomenon of Omar al-Bashir and his cocking of a snoop to the ICC).

Or maybe this is all wrong. Perhaps we’ve had a big problem with frivolous attempts to get people arrested? A rash of “stunt arrests”, with all sorts of world leaders rightly complaining about PR-led efforts to have them arrested? Well, no. Because the current system seems to work perfectly well, with senior district judges already able to reject weak warrant applications. “There is not a single example of the current system in Britain failing to filter out cases that are an abuse of process”, says Daniel Machover. In other words, Mr Clarke is determined to crack down on a problem … that doesn’t exist.

Of course the political reality of the last year has been pressure from Israel to make arrests of visiting Israelis suspected of committing or commissioning war crimes less feasible (see earlier post here). As I’ve said before, the UK shouldn’t cave in to this kind of lobbying; instead it should hold firm to universal jurisdiction principles as an effective tool to ensure justice and accountability and as such, a key means towards conflict resolution. Please support Amnesty’s call on David Cameron to reject Mr Clarke’s unnecessary fix.

Interestingly the New Statesman’s George Eaton notes that leading political figures like Vince Cable and Chris Huhne opposed changes to war crimes arrest warrants when in opposition. He wonders whether they’ll speak out now. Let’s see …


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