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I hope that the Government-and, for that matter, the Opposition-would hesitate a good deal before taking away the right of private individuals to seek to persuade the courts to issue an arrest warrant for war crimes. It would be unfortunate and retrogressive to do that. Moreover, I understand that primary legislation would be required to change the existing law. I am sure that the Solicitor-General will be able to comment on that. Do we want to send out a message that we do not take seriously the Geneva conventions and our courts' jurisdiction over war crimes? Time and again, we in the
House of Commons have rightly condemned war crimes, atrocities and the targeting of civilians, all of which are outlawed under international law. It seems strange that we should somehow change the law-I hope that will not be the position-because it has been embarrassing for a former Israeli Minister.
Another argument has been put forward, perhaps as the main reason, for changing the law: that it will undermine the peace process if it is not possible for the person I have mentioned to come to this country. If she came, of course, no prosecution could take place without the consent of the Attorney-General. However, I find it very difficult to accept that the peace process, of which there is not much evidence unfortunately, is largely dependent on a former Israeli Foreign Minister, currently leader of her party, coming to Britain.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I am pleased that my hon. Friend has secured the debate and that it has a reasonable time to run. However, does he accept that there is a problem in that the suggestion of changing the rules on universal jurisdiction arrest warrants moves the matter back into the political arena rather than away from it, which has been the general thrust of the Government legal strategy over the past few years, with the establishment of the Supreme Court and all that goes with it?
Mr. Winnick: My hon. Friend makes a strong point. A Government should not intervene in such a way. As he knows, and as I have mentioned more than once, we should also bear in mind that whether a prosecution takes place depends on the Attorney-General. I hope that the Solicitor General's response will satisfy me and the House that the law will remain as it is, but that it is in the overall interest of Britain, and of other countries, including Israel, not to take any action that could undermine our position in bringing, or trying to bring, to justice, those who might have been involved, directly or indirectly, in war crimes. That is an important matter, and I look forward to her reply.
Barry Gardiner (Brent, North) (Lab): I expected not to make a speech this afternoon, but simply an intervention. I often agree wholeheartedly with many things that my hon. Friend says in the House, and I anticipated doing so on this occasion, but I fear that that is not to be the case. It concerns me greatly that, at many points, his argument relied on the fact that, ultimately, even though an arrest warrant might have been issued, a prosecution would depend on the Attorney-General. That is a dishonest argument, because it suggests that there must be a strong case-I think "strong" was the word he used-with strong evidence, as well as jurisdiction, to secure the agreement of a magistrate to issue the arrest warrant in the first place. My understanding is that there must be a prima facie case.
My hon. Friend's argument relies on a discrepancy between a prima facie case being heard by a magistrate and reliance on his confidence-or on the assertion that in the case under discussion one could have been confident-that no prosecution would be continued with. That is an intellectually dishonest argument, because it says that someone should be allowed to apply for a warrant on a prima facie case and to abuse the law
simply to embarrass a political figure, without the serious intent of believing that a prosecution could follow. That one should continue to allow that, secure in the knowledge that a prosecution would not follow, is not a straightforward position and my hon. Friend is normally a very straightforward thinker on these matters.
Mr. Winnick: I do not want to debate the issues with my hon. Friend because of the time, but the normal procedure is that the Speaker or the Deputy Speaker is asked whether a Member who wants to speak has my permission to intervene in an Adjournment debate. I do not object in any way but I hope that time is not being taken from the Minister.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The rule or custom to which the hon. Gentleman has just referred applies when the debate is limited to half an hour. If we have more time than that-we have considerably more-the rules do not apply and anyone may take part in the debate.
This is a difficult and sensitive issue and I agree with my hon. Friend that we should not do anything to stop war crimes being taken seriously and to stop prosecutions for war crimes being brought within this country. However, the serious issue is this: the law is there to be used, not abused. Unusually, in this case it has been abused, and that has allowed for the possibility of further abuses in the future. That could prejudice the proper workings of the Foreign Office and the Government in carrying out proper debates with those who are not subject to diplomatic immunity, as the member of the Israeli Government might have been on this occasion.
Jeremy Corbyn: I am not quite following my hon. Friend's argument. Clearly there must have been some evidence put before the district judge that Ms Livni would be subject to an arrest warrant on the grounds of human rights law; otherwise the district judge would not have given the arrest warrant. He or she must have examined the evidence and felt that there was enough. If it is good enough for a judge to grant an arrest warrant, surely it is up to us to look at a legal process rather than saying that this might upset diplomatic relations, therefore we must change the law.
Barry Gardiner: I am grateful for the opportunity to try to further explain the position that I am putting to my hon. Friend. In order to secure an arrest warrant there has to be no more than a prima facie case. That may be something that-
There has to be a prima facie case presented to secure an arrest warrant. My hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North made clear that he believed that there was a gap between the prima facie case being presented,
which could secure the arrest warrant, and the security that the Attorney-General would not allow such a prosecution to proceed. It is that intellectual dishonesty that I seek to expose by my remarks.
It is important that we are able to secure prosecutions in this country in a timely fashion, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North said, for war criminals who happen to be in the country. My concern is the way in which this situation has created the possibility of further abuse in the future, which might interfere with the proper workings of Government in holding quite proper discussions with politicians not simply from Israel, but from many parts of the world; something it is important for the Government to be able to do.
Mr. Winnick: I am sorry, because I should, of course, have recognised that more time is available to us. Is my hon. Friend saying that the law, as it stands, is okay-I have never heard him criticise it before-but it should not apply to former Ministers who are alleged to have been involved in actions of a kind that I have described? Or do I take it that his argument is that the whole process should be changed, so that no prosecution can be brought and no arrest warrant issued without the Attorney-General's involvement? Is he in favour of that?
Barry Gardiner: I am rapidly losing my affection for my hon. Friend, because I fear that he is trying to traduce my argument. What he describes is not the position that I have outlined. I do not wish to outline my position for a third time, but in response to the point he has just made I should say that I do not think any of us were aware of the possible abuse of the system until this case arose.
Barry Gardiner: The abuse is precisely in the fact that this was done for publicity purposes, rather than because of any genuine belief that a prosecution had any chance of being successfully brought in this country. That is an abuse of the law, which is why it is important that the Government move to try to stop it. I believe that this is a difficult issue, and I fundamentally agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that cases involving violations of human rights, extra-judicial crimes and war crimes should be able to entertained within the UK jurisdiction. However, I do not believe that the law should be able to be abused as it was in this case.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) for securing this debate, and for his perceptiveness in obtaining a debate on a Thursday and thus giving us an hour and a half to debate universal jurisdiction. Most of us were expecting a 30-minute debate.
The House will be aware that I have tabled early-day motion 502, which has been signed by 101 Members who support it. It expresses concern about the restriction of the universal jurisdiction of UK courts in matters of human rights law. The background to this case rests, as my hon. Friend explained, on a number of conventions, but more recently it has rested on the case of General Pinochet. He was in this country on an arms-buying spree in 1998 when an extradition warrant was sought
by Spain. The then Home Secretary-he is now the Secretary of State for Justice-granted the extradition warrant and General Pinochet was duly arrested. He then sought diplomatic immunity as a former Head of State, but that was rejected by the British courts. The House of Lords, in its final judgment, asserted that the British courts had universal jurisdiction in matters of human rights law. It did so on the basis of an arrest warrant that was granted by a divisional court. That is an important step forward in international law.
Those who have read my early-day motion will note that it specifically does not mention any individual case-it does not mention the arrest warrant sought in the case of Tzipi Livni. It is an attempt to defend a very important principle: the right of British courts to arrest people where there is prima facie evidence that they have committed human rights abuses or violated the appropriate United Nations statutes to which this country is also signed up.
The furore about this matter has arisen-it was, doubtless, what provoked my hon. Friend into obtaining this debate-because a universal arrest warrant was sought in the case of Ms Livni. It was obtained in a divisional court on the basis that there was prima facie evidence that she was a party to crimes against humanity during Operation Cast Lead, when Israel bombed Gaza and 1,400 people died. I was in Gaza two weeks ago and witnessed, still, the remnants of that attack. The arguments for changing the law seem to be coming from friends of Ms Livni who say that to prevent her from coming to this country would damage relations between Britain and Israel. They say that the rights and powers of a court to issue an arrest warrant must therefore be removed and that those powers should be placed in the hands of the Attorney-General, who would decide whether to issue the warrant or not.
As I explained in my invention earlier, the trend of legislation has been to separate for all time, as far as possible, the authority of the courts from the interference of politicians. That is something to which we all agree. The Attorney-General is inevitably a politically appointed figure. Let us imagine that the Attorney-General had to consider whether to issue an arrest warrant in the case of Ms Livni and that somebody, or a group of people, put pressure on them to do so. They would be put under a huge amount of pressure, including arguments that it was a diplomatic problem, that the Government of Israel and the US objected to it, that various Arab countries agreed with it and so on. It would no longer be a decision based on prima facie evidence or on the law, but a decision based on the diplomatic niceties of the situation and the political pressures under which the Attorney-General was put. Would the same pressures apply if somebody applied for an arrest warrant on Robert Mugabe? I do not know. All I know is that it is quite important that we should base this on humanitarian law and that the arrest warrant should be awarded, or not, on the basis of evidence put before the judge.
My hon. Friend seems to be suggesting that the most important thing is that there should be an arrest. Surely we are all agreed that when there have been war crimes or violations of human rights, there should be a successful prosecution. To simply say that
we must secure the arrest and that we do not want to get the Attorney-General involved at that stage is beside the point-in fact, it misses the point. Ultimately, it will be a matter for the Attorney-General and the Crown Prosecution Service whether that arrest leads to prosecution-
Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Gentleman seems determined to miss the microphones. I know he is trying to be courteous to the hon. Friends with whom he is disputing points, but it is very important for the benefit of those who compile the Official Report that they should hear what is said.
Jeremy Corbyn: It is a fairly obvious argument. There could not be a successful prosecution unless there had been an arrest in the first place. One needs a person to prosecute and the arrest warrant would provide that opportunity. That takes me back to the point: an arrest warrant can be issued only if there is prima facie evidence against an individual. The judge obviously thought that there was in this case. The then Home Secretary obviously thought that there was when he allowed the extradition request on General Pinochet in 1998. There are many other issues. My point is that if we sign up to UN conventions on torture and abductions and to conventions of any sort against humanitarian abuse and war crimes, is it a good idea to fetter our signing up to them by saying, "Oh, by the way, we will take the decision on political grounds because we do not want to upset friendly countries"?
We had the same debate when the Rome statute and the setting up of the International Criminal Court were discussed. We debated what would happen if the British military were accused under that statute of war crimes. The House took the position that we would support the Rome statute and sign up to the ICC. That was a good thing and I support that process. If we are to defeat human rights abuses around the world, we must be prepared to take the difficult decisions to prosecute the people who perpetrate these crimes.
Barry Gardiner: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way again. The issue here is not whether the crimes will be prosecuted, but whether the arrest process should be initiated by a private individual. That is where the abuse appears to be taking place.
Jeremy Corbyn: My hon. Friend talks about an arrest being initiated by a private individual, but the arrest warrant in this case was sought and obtained by people acting on behalf of, or in sympathy with, those who suffered during Operation Cast Lead. If he is saying that there should be no option to go to court other than when a politically appointed Attorney-General, of whatever political party, decides that that would be a good idea, surely that is to negate the principle of universal jurisdiction. As I said earlier, that would reduce matters to the level of diplomatic considerations, rather than legal and humanitarian considerations.
Barry Gardiner: My hon. Friend is seeking to paint the Attorney-General as a political figure but the individuals who initiated the arrest warrant as in some way non-political. That is clearly not the case, particularly in this instance. Again, it is intellectually dishonest to try to represent the one as simply a disinterested individual who wants to ensure that war crimes do not take place, and the other as a politically motivated individual.
The Attorney-General, one assumes, has a mature and responsible attitude to ensuring that war crimes are prosecuted where an effective prosecution can be gained. He would therefore be prone to initiate an arrest warrant to achieve that.
Jeremy Corbyn: If my hon. Friend's position is that the Attorney-General would automatically be minded to prosecute, then I am sure they would have no problem whatsoever with there being a universal arrest warrant that could be obtained from a district judge on the basis of prima facie evidence.
My hon. Friend seems to adopt the position that interested parties, be they relatives or sympathisers of a particular group of wronged citizens, have to be removed. However, if we are to deal with human rights abuses, surely we have to be prepared to ensure that the current situation, which I regard as a huge step forward from what existed previously, is maintained, and that we do not change the law in that respect.
When the Minister replies, I hope she will understand that there are many people-in organisations such as Human Rights Watch, Justice, Redress, the International Federation of Human Rights, Global Witness and others-who are very concerned about the political statements made immediately after the non-visit of Ms Livni to this country because of the arrest warrant that had been issued. They urge that Britain stand on the side of universal jurisdiction, and not disappear from it.
"The UK must not renege on its international treaty obligations, particularly those under the Fourth Geneva Convention...to seek out and prosecute war criminals wherever and whoever they are, whatever their status, rank or influence, against whom good prima facie evidence has been laid."
After the end of the second world war, many very brave people used whatever law was available to seek out and prosecute Nazi war criminals, in all kinds of jurisdictions all over the world-including this one. Many years later, as my hon. Friend will know because he was here, we eventually passed the International Criminal Court Act 2001, under which such people can be prosecuted.
I realise that my hon. Friend may have difficulties with the idea that a person of the stature and opinions of Tzipi Livni could be arrested for war crimes because of what happened in Operation Cast Lead, but that would be a matter for the courts to decide, if and when she were arraigned and a prosecution took place. However, he seems to be trying to put up a barrier that, as I said before, would allow a diplomatic intervention to prevent that happening.
If we are to be taken seriously on human rights law, we have to be prepared to prosecute people whether they come from countries that we consider to be friends, or from ones we do not. That is the principle at stake here. I hope that when the Minister replies, she will assure us that despite all the huffing and puffing of the past few weeks, she will recognise that 111 MPs from all parties signed my early-day motion, which is a significant number. The legal opinions that she, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and others have received are strong in this area, and I hope the Government will stand firm and say, "We signed up to all these international conventions. We accept the universal jurisdiction decision
of the Law Lords in the case of Pinochet, from which some of this issue stems, and we are not going to change, just because it is inconvenient to some people at present."
If we are to prevent people from being bombed and killed, and if we are to prevent unreasonable military actions that result in huge loss of life, surely we have to do so through a legal process of accepting and understanding international humanitarian and human rights law, rather than saying it is all a matter of political judgment at the end of the day. I hope the Minister can placate people who are concerned about this issue, and tell us that there will be no change in this particular law, and that no amendments and no new law will be rushed through the House. If there is an attempt to do so, it will be met with widespread opposition from Members of all parties on both sides of the House and, I suspect, in the House of Lords, too, because this is an issue of the utmost principle and the utmost importance.
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