Justice: 1 - War Criminals: 0  but it's not over yet

The decision taken by Jack Straw to change the law to now be able to prosecute those living in the UK and suspected of committing war crimes and acts of genocide as far back as 1991, has caused quite a stir in British media.

Yesterday the Independent gave space to the story and it returns to the story again today with a compelling feature which includes an interview with the Celestin Ugirashebuja one of the suspects living the UK and a victim of Rwanda genocide.

The Sun devotes a double page spread to the story, profiling the four Rwandan men living in the UK suspected of being involved in the 1994 genocide.  The paper suggests that these “suspected mass murderers” could now face trial over these allegations. It also takes a swipe at the current situation in the UK, describing it as a “haven from justice for little-known war criminals”.

Such language is not dissimilar to how we described the situation three years ago when we drew the Attorney-General’s attention to two men suspected of being involved in the Rwandan genocide. We broke the story in the Guardian urging the UK to not serve as a haven for those suspected of committing the worst crimes known to mankind. We have always urged that suspects should receive a fair trial, and Tuesday’s decision does go some way to making that happen. But it doesn’t go far enough.

As Kate Allen explains in her piece on Independent Minds the expected change in law would apply only to those who are actually legally resident in the UK. That excludes anyone living here on spousal or student visas, work permits, or who are simply visiting. This is a major gap in the newly proposed changes and a loophole which possibly dozens of suspects can easily fall into.

There is also the question of why just back to 1991.  People did commit war crimes, crimes against humanity and were involved in genocide way before 1991.  Surely the law should apply retrospectively as far back as when these crimes were defined under international law?

No doubt this debate can surely rumble on.  Without a doubt, we think that this is a welcome step in the right direction from the Justice Secretary. But there’s a long way to go yet before we can be assured that anyone suspected of being involved in mass killings, mass rape, forcible recruitment of children into armed groups and other such heinous crimes will automatically be able to be brought to justice as soon as they touch down on UK soil.

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