x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

UK to change universal jurisdiction law

The change is aimed at stopping Palestinians from seeking arrest warrants against Israeli officials on war crimes charges as they visit Britain.

William Hague, Britain's foreign secretary, yesterday became the first senior politician of the country to arrive in Israel since the coalition government came to power in London in May.
William Hague, Britain's foreign secretary, yesterday became the first senior politician of the country to arrive in Israel since the coalition government came to power in London in May.

LONDON // Britain is to change the law of universal jurisdiction to stop Palestinian groups securing arrest warrants accusing Israeli politicians of war crimes when they visit the UK.

The undertaking is expected to be made by Foreign Secretary William Hague, who yesterday became the first senior British politician to arrive in Israel since the coalition government came to power in May.

Mr Hague will also get a briefing from the Israelis on their assessment of the effectiveness of the latest international sanctions on Iran and will reiterate the UK's opposition to the continued building of Jewish settlements in the West Bank during his visit.

For the Israelis, however, the main item of the agenda will be the powers of universal jurisdiction that exist in Britain, which allow groups to obtain arrest warrants from magistrates for crimes against humanity allegedly committed by visiting politicians or military commanders anywhere in the world.

Dan Meridor, Israel's deputy prime minister, pulled out of a visit he was due to make to London yesterday because of fears that pro-Palestinian groups would obtain a warrant against him over the killing by Israeli troops of nine Turks in a flotilla attempting to break the Gaza blockade earlier this year.

Last December, after the opposition leader Tzipi Livni cancelled a trip to London when she faced arrest for her role in the Gaza invasion, the then Labour government promised to curtail individuals' powers of universal jurisdiction under British law.

But Gordon Brown's administration quietly dropped the matter amid the outrage that followed the use of cloned UK passports in the assassination in Dubai of senior Hamas official Mahmoud al Mabhouh in January.

David Cameron's Conservative Party promised to resurrect the plan in its election manifesto but, after taking power, did not include it in its programme of forthcoming legislation.

Mr Hague, a long-time member of the Conservative Friends of Israel group, will put that right during his current trip, though the move has not gone down well with Palestinian activists in Britain.

Sarah Colborne, the director of campaigns at the London-based Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said: "Israeli military and political figures have repeatedly called on the British government to water down our legislation on war crimes, claiming their travel arrangements are restricted.

"The UK must not become the kind of nation where war criminals can wander freely, but this is exactly what the coalition government is proposing with its plans to weaken the law on universal jurisdiction."

During his trip, Mr Hague is scheduled to have discussions with the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu; the foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman; the defence minister, Ehud Barak; and Mrs Livni.

He is also expected to meet members of the family of Gilad Schalit, who are lobbying European leaders to pressure Hamas to release their son from captivity in Gaza where he has been held since being abducted during an Israeli raid in June, 2006.

According to the Haaretz newspaper, Mr Hague will also take part in a round table discussion today with senior Israeli officials - including Meir Dagan, the Mossad chief, and Shaul Chorev, the director general of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission - over Iran.

"The round table discussion is being held at his request," Haaretz reported. "His goal is both to gain an in-depth understanding of the Israeli government's positions on this issue and to hear assessments of Iran's nuclear programme first hand from senior Israeli defence and intelligence officials."

Israel's political leaders, meanwhile, are expected to take little notice of Mr Hague's objections to continued building in the occupied territories, which last month he described as making "talking [peace] harder and, therefore, the long-term position of their own country less secure".

Yesterday, the Palestinian prime minister, Salam Fayyad, vowed that East Jerusalem would be the capital of a Palestinian state as he opened a refurbished school there.

"This area is part of Jerusalem and [East] Jerusalem is Palestinian land occupied in 1967," Agence France-Presse quoted him telling about people who attended the opening ceremony in the neighbourhood of Dahiyat al Barid. "It will be the capital of our independent state," he said.

Observers believe that apart from the undertaking to change universal jurisdiction and the signing of a cinema co-production agreement, very little of concrete value is likely to emerge from Mr Hague's visit.

The Jewish Chronicle in London commented: "It is hard to recall a time in which Britain was so inconsequential to the Middle East. Few Israeli diplomats are even aware he [Mr Hague] is coming and even fewer care.

"Cameron's Britain is not even viewed as an important member of the EU. Israel is more interested in relations with Germany, which is building two submarines for its navy, and serves as the main negotiator for a possible prisoner swap for Gilad Shalit.

"Britain has no tangible assets in the region. Hague needs this visit to show that he is an international player. But, for Israel, he is just another visiting foreign minister who wants to make a big show of getting involved."