|INDEPENDENT: Israeli officials may have less to fear coming to UK but uncomfortable questions remain|
|Sunday, 03 June 2012 00:00|
By Ben White
Despite a change in the universal jurisdiction legislation last year, Israeli officials and military officers are still not visiting Britain for fear of arrest on war crimes charges, it has been revealed. As reported in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, Israel’s Maj. Gen. (res.) Doron Almog (pictured, right) cancelled a scheduled speaking engagement in London next month, “on the advice of the Israeli government”.
In 2005, Almog dramatically escaped arrest on war crimes charges by staying on his plane at Heathrow following a tip-off that police were waiting for him. Currently, he is in charge of “implementing the relocation” of Bedouin citizens in the Negev.
In September 2011, following pressure by the Israeli government and pro-Israel groups in the UK, the law was amended so that “the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions will be required before an arrest warrant can be issued”. Though it was Israel demanding the change, Amnesty International stressed before and after that such a change would “hamper victims’ attempts to bring private prosecutions through the British courts against perpetrators of torture and war crimes”.
The Ha’aretz article adds some interesting – and disturbing – details to what was already known, or suspected, about both the change in law as well as the circumstances of former-Israeli FM Tzipi Livni’s visit shortly after the bill’s passing.
A “senior Israeli official” speaking to the paper anonymously, claimed that “the [British] government promised it would be changed so that only the Attorney General, who is a political figure we can trust, would authorize universal jurisdiction arrests” (my emphasis). However, the contentious amendment eventually assigned this responsibility to the Director of Public Prosecutions.
The paper also notes that “Britain’s ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, contacted Almog and Livni personally after the law was amended to tell them they could now visit Britain without risking arrest” (and at least in Livni’s case, on the same day as the amendment).
However, what transpired when the then-Israeli FM answered Foreign Secretary William Hague’s invitation proved what Almog now says (and what Livni worried about in an interview even while in London) – that the changes could not entirely protect an individual with a case to answer.
As I wrote at the time, “Livni only avoided a warrant due to a legal assessment by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) that she was on a ‘Special Mission’.” In other words, the new law was not actually tested. The Ha’aretz report supports this version of events, noting that “the visit was still defined as official, in order to guarantee her protection under diplomatic immunity” (my emphasis).
Uncomfortable questions remain. What was a UK ambassador doing, personally contacting two individuals suspected of war crimes to assure them they would be safe from arrest in Britain? In addition, does the decision to go public about Almog and Israeli disquiet with the status quo presage a new round of pressure on the British government for a further weakening of our universal jurisdiction legislation?