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Gaza war crimes charges: Britain to stem arrest warrants for Israel's leaders

Pro-Palestinian activists, who say Israel committed Gaza war crimes, had been seeking arrest warrants from Britain's lower courts for senior political and military leaders planning visits to the country.

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In this Jan. 13, 2009 file photo, smoke rises following explosions caused by Israeli military operations in Gaza City. British courts issued arrest warrants for top Israeli military and political officials accused of war crimes, a legal mechanism that the UK government is attempting to shut down.

Hatem Moussa/AP/File

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Britain is preparing to shut down a legal mechanism that pro-Palestinian activists have used to issue arrest warrants for Israeli military and political officials planning to visit the country – a move that has compromised diplomatic relations between the two countries. The activists, who say that Israel committed war crimes in Gaza, have worked through Britain's lower courts to seek legal retribution.

The warrants have had “a profound impact” on Anglo-Israeli relations, both politically and militarily, says Stephen Pollard, editor of the Jewish Chronicle newspaper. The ability of Israeli personnel to come to Britain and share antiterrorism expertise has been hampered, for example. Last week, four senior officers from the Israel Defense Forces canceled an official visit because the British government could not guarantee that they would not face arrest.

“This has also started to affect more than just diplomatic aspects,” he adds. “Charities can’t bring in guest speakers from Israel, for example, because many of them, senior politicians for example, would also be the prime targets of those seeking these arrest warrants.”

Tzipi Livni, a former foreign minister of Israel and a member of its war cabinet during the conflict in Gaza last year, was forced to withdraw from a planned appearance at a convention of the Jewish National Fund in London last month after learning that a warrant had been issued by Westminster Magistrate court for her arrest.

During a visit to Israel this week, Britain’s attorney general, Baroness Scotland, said that the government was looking at ways to prevent future such occurences.

It was “determined that Israel’s leaders should always be able to travel freely to the UK,” she added.

It’s now expected that the British government will move – as early as this month – to introduce measures that would give Britain’s attorney general some form of veto over arrest warrants in private prosecutions against foreign political leaders.

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Controversial principle: universal jurisdiction

At the heart of the issue is the principle of universal jurisdiction – a concept in international law that holds that any country can prosecute any crime, regardless of the nation where it took place and the nationality of the accused.

Craig Barker, a specialist in international law and diplomatic immunity at the University of Sussex, says that the Britain-Israel controversy was emerging as the extension of jurisdiction was becoming a major issue internationally.

“While it might seem to be a really good idea that anyone who commits an offense anywhere can be prosecuted somewhere else, in reality, there are very few examples of this universal jurisdiction being applied,” he says. “Ultimately, unless you had all states falling full square behind the principle of universal jurisdiction, it is always going to lead to problems. However, if the UK were to allow this precedent to go ahead, then there is a significant chance that Tony Blair would be arrested somewhere.”

He adds that it’s important to weigh the value of diplomatic relations versus prosecution. “The question,” he says, “has to be raised: Is it more important to prosecute alleged war criminals, or is it better that these people are participating in the diplomatic process?”

London a hub for NGO activism

The current situation has already chilled relations between both states and led to a “de facto bar” on visits to the UK by Israeli officials fearing arrest, claim British supporters of Israel. Lawyers acting for Palestinians warn they will continue to seek the warrants on the grounds of alleged war crimes.

Living in a global hub for nongovernment organizations (NGOs), London’s activists are perhaps better able than those elsewhere to significantly impact diplomatic relations through the lower courts. But in an era where universal justice is gaining universal acceptance, both sides agree that such activism could just as easily begin to happen elsewhere.

“One of the differences between Britain and other countries is that we have such a strong nongovernmental organization community. London is in many ways the world capital of NGOs,” says Bill Bowring, a barrister and professor of law who has been involved in pursuing Russia through the European Court of Human Rights for alleged crimes committed by its military in Chechnya. “This is not the only example of universal jurisdiction, but the fact is that there are groups here trying to make it a reality here.”

Prior attempts to try Israelis

Prior to Livni canceling her visit to London last month, attempts to bring visiting Israeli dignitaries before the British courts have been made on at least three other occasions.

The closest one to come to an actual arrest was in Sept 2005.

A former head of Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip, Gen. Doron Almog, received warning before disembarking from an aircraft at Heathrow Airport that a warrant had been issued for his arrest, and he flew back to Israel.

While institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) have heightened the profile of international law and justice, the ICC does not have universal jurisdiction. Instead, those seeking the arrest warrants in Britain are relying on the much older provisions of the Geneva Conventions, as well as domestic law.

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