July 22, 2010: New Jurisdiction Rules
The jurisdiction of the courts in England and Wales is basically territorial – with some exceptions they only try offences committed in England and Wales.
However, war crimes under the Geneva Conventions Act 1957 (and a small number of other grave offences) are subject to universal jurisdiction. This enables prosecution to take place here even though the offence was committed outside the United Kingdom, and irrespective of nationality.
There are a small number of offences over which the United Kingdom has 'universal jurisdiction'. That means that a suspect can be prosecuted regardless of where the crime was committed, or the nationality of the perpetrator or victim.
Offences covered include some of the most serious under international law, such as:
- war crimes under the Geneva Conventions Act
A person accused of committing these very serious crimes in another country can be brought to justice in UK courts.
At the moment, anyone can apply to the courts for an arrest warrant. That is a right that the government wants to protect. However, because the evidence necessary to issue an arrest warrant may be far less than would be needed for a prosecution, the system is open to possible abuse by people trying to obtain arrest warrants for grave crimes on the basis of flimsy evidence to make a political statement or to cause embarrassment.
In the past, attempts have been made to obtain warrants to arrest visiting foreign dignitaries such as Henry Kissinger, Chinese Trade Minister Bo Xilai and Tzipi Livni, former Foreign Minister and now leader of the Opposition in Israel.
Announcing plans to bring forward legislation, Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke restated the Government’s commitment to upholding international law and said:
'Our commitment to our international obligations and to ensuring that there is no impunity for those accused of crimes of universal jurisdiction is unwavering.
'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.
'The Government has concluded, after careful consideration, that it would be appropriate to require the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions before an arrest warrant can be issued to a private prosecutor in respect of an offence of universal jurisdiction.'
The Government will bring forward legislation as soon as Parliamentary time allows.