Govt waters down human rights law

By Ian Dunt

A law which allows human rights violators to be arrested in the UK despite having committed the alleged crime abroad is set to be watered down by the coalition government.

Ken Clarke, justice secretary, is seeking to tighten up the rules around the law after the government was embarrassed by attempts to arrest Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni.

The change to the law involves a small number of human rights offences where the UK has “universal jurisdiction”. These are typically the most serious human right abuses, such as war crimes, torture or hostage-taking.

As the law stands anyone can apply to the courts for an arrest warrant if they suspect someone in the UK committed one of these crimes anywhere in the world.

The government plans to retain that right but introduce a requirement for approval from the director of public prosecutions before a warrant is issued.

Supporters of the move say it is a necessary addition to a system which allows arrest warrants to be brought forward without the strict evidence requirements necessary to secure a prosecution.

But opponents argue the move simply spares the government the embarrassment of seeing its allies avoid the UK due to fear of arrest – whether they are human rights violators or not.

Henry Kissinger and Chinese trade minister Bo Xilai have both faced the warrants in the past.

“Our commitment to our international obligations and to ensuring that there is no impunity for those accused of crimes of universal jurisdiction is unwavering,” Mr Clarke said.

“It is important, however, that universal jurisdiction cases should be proceeded with in this country only on the basis of solid evidence that is likely to lead to a successful prosecution – otherwise there is a risk of damaging our ability to help in conflict resolution or to pursue a coherent foreign policy.”