Legal mechanisms developed after the end of the Second World War to more easily prosecute war criminals are now being taken off the books to preserve Israeli impunity from accountability.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes an outraged international community demanded justice — a demand that resulted in the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the introduction of the new legal concept of universal jurisdiction. Justice, it seemed, would be impartial and hiding places for criminals scarce.
Universal jurisdiction is a simple concept. Deriving its authority from Common Article 1 of the Geneva Conventions, it places an obligation upon all states “to respect and ensure respect” for the laws of war, effectively requiring all states to prosecute suspected war criminals regardless of where the crimes were committed.
In reality, however, universal jurisdiction has rarely been invoked. This absence of enforcement in a world replete with war crimes and crimes against humanity may seem more than a little peculiar but is easily explained. In the vast majority of states the decision to investigate and prosecute lies with the state-controlled institutions of the police and public prosecutor’s office, and these unfortunately, unless they are politically sanctioned to do so, do not spend time investigating crimes committed elsewhere.
Consequently, when suspected war criminals travel abroad they travel with virtual impunity; the preparatory investigations needed to establish a case against them having simply not been done. Until mid September, however, there was one country where war criminals stood a fair chance of having their day in court.
In the UK the judicial system allowed private parties and individuals to present their own evidence of war crimes before a magistrate who could then, if he or she felt the case was strong enough, issue a warrant for the suspect’s arrest. Consequently, in 2005 retired Israeli General Doron Almog only escaped arrest by skulking in his plane before being flown back to Israel, while in 2009 Kadima party leader Tzipi Livni cancelled her trip rather than face arrest. Other senior Israeli figures simply chose to stay away from Britain.
Sadly on 15 September this means of potentially achieving justice was revoked. In response to Israeli protests the UK government chose to change its laws rather than see Israelis arrested. In a move condemned by Amnesty International, the UK government amended the law on universal jurisdiction so that in future only the Director of Public Prosecutions can authorize the arrest of a suspected war criminal (“Tories make life easier for war criminals,” Liberal Conspiracy, 30 March 2011).