Told You So

Today’s Guardian reports that an English district judge issued an arrest warrant on Sunday for Israel’s former foreign minister Tzipi Livni over war crimes allegedly committed in Gaza this year, only to withdraw it when it was discovered that she had cancelled a planned trip to London.

In my column for the current print edition of Standpoint, I said it could be only a matter of time before a prominent Israeli was arrested in London for alleged war crimes.

Fortunately, the British Foreign Office seems embarrassed by its persistent failure to seek a change in the law. Officials seem to be doing what they can to avoid an arrest, either by warning Israelis not to come to London or by arranging meetings with British ministers, thus making the visit “official”. 

But this approach — even with behind-the-scenes legal support — provides only precarious protection and could not assist Livni, who is no longer in the Israeli government.

As I argued in my column, the law needs to be changed urgently. There should be no power of arrest in cases where there is no realistic prospect of a trial.

Update: Someone out there seems to be listening. The Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, said tonight that the Government was “looking urgently at ways in which the UK system might be changed in order to avoid this sort of situation arising again”.

In a statement, he said:

Israel is a strategic partner and a close friend of the UK.  We are determined to protect and develop these ties. Israeli leaders – like leaders from other countries – must be able to visit and have a proper dialogue with the British Government.    

The procedure by which arrest warrants can be sought and issued without any prior knowledge or advice by a prosecutor is an unusual feature of the system in England and Wales. The Government is looking urgently at ways in which the UK system might be changed in order to avoid this sort of situation arising again.

Better late than never. But wouldn’t it have been more statesmanlike to have done this when the problem was first identified in 2005?

And what’s all this about “looking urgently” at ways of sorting it out? The matter was considered four years ago when Lord Goldsmith was Attorney General. The government knows what to do and how to do it. All that has been lacking is the political will.


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