Arising originally out of the Geneva Conventions, we have witnessed the internationalisation of criminal law, with tyrants now running a greater risk of capture, trial and imprisonment. The sight of some truly grotesque individuals in the dock in The Hague is a salutary warning lesson to such people. Justice is now more effectively being meted out for "universal jurisdiction" offences, such as war crimes, torture and mass murder.
Nonetheless, the Government is seeking to change the operation of universal jurisdiction here with its Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill. The reason is simple. Under our present arrangements, the process has been exploited for political purposes which is potentially damaging to our relations with other countries and our ability to pursue those relationships in our national interest.
Currently, the Crown Prosecution Service must decide – based on a report from the Metropolitan Police – whether there is a realistic prospect of conviction. The possibility of seeking prosecution then goes to the Attorney General. Incredibly enough, under the existing arrangements, a private prosecution can actually be sought ahead of the Attorney General’s consent to obtain an arrest warrant.
Whilst information on this is not crystal clear, there have apparently been ten private applications in the past decade, with only two being successful. Furthermore, there has never been a private prosecution under universal jurisdiction ending in a conviction. So we are entitled to ask whether universal jurisdiction works effectively at all, and does it deter people potentially at risk of arrest from coming to Britain? Currently, an arrest warrant could be issued on the basis of a simple allegation, and potentially be obtained where the evidence is at best skeletal.
No responsible citizen could support a situation whereby applications for an arrest warrant for some well-known international figure are made for publicity purposes, to draw attention to a particular cause. It is an obvious abuse. There are many ways of to campaign for political causes in an open democracy like ours.
The threatened possible arrest of the senior Israeli politician Tzipi Livni highlights the problem. It infuriated the Israelis and caused embarrassment to our own country. The potential risk of arrest prevented Ms Livni from coming to Britain.
Now there are passionately-held views about the Israel-Palestine problem. Yet some of the very same people who object to the Government’s plan to rectify the current procedures have a very confused mindset. They believe that a more direct involvement in universal jurisdiction by a politician would hamper efforts to bring to justice those they would accuse of crimes against humanity, yet they want our politicians to be more fully involved in tackling the Israel-Palestine conflict. But self-evidently we simply could not begin to do that if the current arrangements inhibit senior Israeli figures from coming to London – or indeed important political or military individuals from other countries. It diminishes our national credibility and the exercise of influence outside our own borders.
Given that there has been virtually no linkage between successfully securing an arrest warrant and achieving a prosecution process, change is a must. In future, the Director of Public Prosecutions will have oversight and will be required to act promptly, and to make a proper evaluation of how realistic a successful prosecution is – clearly necessary given the inevitable political sensitivities involved. This will prevent the issuing of an arrest warrant on flimsy grounds and stop the use of universal jurisdiction to obtain publicity for political purposes. However the valid underlying principles and intent behind the existing processes will remain intact.
The last twelve months have seen William Hague, with David Cameron’s blessing, reshape the Foreign Office from the shrunken animal it had become under Labour, when control of our external relationships was exercised from Downing Street. Gaps in foreign policy commitments have been filled and key bilateral relationships improved and strengthened. Human rights and national interest are much more coherently integrated. In practice universal jurisdiction here has been both ineffectual and open to abuse, and has weakened Britain’s role in the world. The changes being legislated are both necessary and welcome.