War crimes arrests: Controversial clause in tomorrow's policing bill risks making UK 'soft' on war crimes and torture

‘Even Libyan government officials might escape justice in the UK’ - Kate Allen

Amnesty International is calling for controversial measures in a new policing bill due to be debated tomorrow (30 March) to be dropped, warning that it could lead to suspected war criminals in the UK evading justice.

The measures, contained in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill (Clause 152), will, for the first time, mean that the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions will be required before an arrest warrant can be issued for suspected war criminals and torturers present in the UK.

Under international law as well as under current UK law, those suspected of extremely grave offences like torture and war crimes can be prosecuted in the UK on the basis of “universal jurisdiction” even if their crimes were committed outside the UK, and even if they were committed by non-UK nationals.

Recently the government has argued that the system is open to “abuse” by “political groups”, claiming warrants can be obtained from magistrates on flimsy evidence. However, the government has failed to provide any examples of magistrates issuing them in such circumstances, despite repeated requests from campaigners for the government to back up these claims. Foreign governments are known to have lobbied the UK authorities for changes to the law.

Meanwhile, on the international stage the UK government has recently expressed strong support for international justice. Speaking last month about the Libyan crisis at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva, the Foreign Secretary William Hague said: “This is a warning to anyone contemplating the abuse of human rights in Libya or any other country: Stay your hand. There will be a day of reckoning and the reach of international justice can be long.”

The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill is due to be debated in the House of Commons on Wednesday 30 March. A number of MPs have voiced their opposition to changing the arrest warrant procedures but the change is nevertheless believed to have high-level political support.

Amnesty International UK Director Kate Allen said:

“At a time when it is discussing international justice and Libya, it’s unbelievable that the government is preparing to weaken the UK’s own commitment to international justice.

“Clause 152 sends out the unmistakable message that the UK is soft on crime if those crimes are war crimes and torture.

“It introduces dangerous delays that could mean even people suspected of the worst imaginable crimes are less likely to face arrest. Even Libyan government officials might escape justice in the UK if this lumbering arrangement is set up.

“The government shouldn’t be tinkering with this essential tool of international justice. The current process allows victims of crimes under international law to act quickly against suspected perpetrators who could otherwise enter and leave the UK before police and prosecutors are able to act.

“Currently, magistrates are required to screen each request for a warrant carefully, refusing those failing to meet strict standards of evidence. There appear to have been no instances - and the UK government has still failed to provide any - of magistrates issuing arrest warrants based on 'flimsy evidence’, or of the system being abused.

“Instead of weakening the law and undermining the fight for international justice, the UK should be bolstering it to ensure that whenever there is sufficient admissible evidence suspected war criminals and torturers are brought to trial.”

Under current law in England and Wales, as in many other countries around the world, victims of war crimes, torture and hostage-taking can mount private prosecutions against suspected perpetrators in any country, regardless of nationality or where the crime was committed, under the international rule of universal jurisdiction. Victims need to meet a high threshold of evidence in order to obtain an arrest warrant.


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