Mr President, we dont have a warrant for your arrest: the UK goes soft on war crimes

On a busy news day yesterday (snow chaos, more WikiLeaks bombshells, mounting anticipation over the Fifa world cup decision: congrats Russia, by the way) the government slipped out a very important item on the procedures for issuing arrest warrants in war crimes cases.

In a fairly unobtrusive bit (section 4, clause 151) of the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill which was published yesterday, there’s a modest little sentence which amends the Magistrates Courts Act 1980 (c’mon legal eagles, keep up). It concerns the issuing of summonses or warrants and it reads thus:

Where a person who is not a public prosecutor lays an information before a justice of the peace in respect of an offence to which this subsection applies, no warrant shall be issued under this section without the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Leaving aside the deliciously arcane linguistic quirk of “an information”, the meaning is plain enough. Because the subsection it applies to concerns arrests in cases where people are suspected of extremely grave offences – torture, war crimes, piracy, hijackings, terrorism – then this new provision is designed to make it more difficult to have warrants issued.

Yes, you read that correctly. More difficult, not easier.

Surely some mistake? No, because the government has been saying (warning) for some time that it would do this. Its (extremely shaky) argument is that “politically-motivated” groups have been applying for arrests warrants on spurious grounds. The government likes to say this but – interestingly – provides no evidence for saying it. According to the lawyer Daniel Machover, only two of the ten private arrest warrant applications ever made have been granted – hardly “an abuse” of the system, and hardly a “problem” in the first place.

Section 151 is called “Restriction on issue of arrest warrants in private prosecutions” and the effect of the restriction, as Amnesty’s Kate Allen warned yesterday, will essentially be one of delay. By the time that DPP has looked at the grounds for issuing the warrant there’s a real danger that the bird will have flown the coop. (See also the letter from legal experts – Machover et al – in today’s Guardian saying the same thing).

This is presently a proposal in a bill that’s still to be debated – and doubtless amended – before becoming law. Please support Amnesty’s call for these dangerous measures to be dropped.

We should be proud of the fact that this country has laws enabling victims of war crimes, torture and hostage-taking to mount private prosecutions against suspected perpetrators on British soil. Do we really want to leave the door open for torturers and war criminals to fly straight back to safe havens in Africa, the Middle East or elsewhere?

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