New law would make policing war criminals even harder

For the first time, the director of public prosecutions’ consent will be required before an arrest warrant can be issued in relation to suspected war criminals and torturers present in the UK, if government plans go through.

International justice

By Allan Hogarth, Amnesty International UK Senior Advocacy Officer

With the future of UK policing still the subject of furious debate after Saturday’s anti-cuts demonstration, there’s another, less high-profile debate on policing occurring in the Commons today.

The Police Reform and Social Responsibility Bill is at its report stage and by tomorrow you’ll probably be reading newspaper articles about measures for directly-elected police commissioners as well as alcohol licensing changes and a ban on protest camps in Parliament Square.

All important issues. But there’s another key provision that’s not getting the attention it deserves. Squirreled away at Clause 152 (4a) is the following:

“Where a person who is not a public prosecutor lays an information before a justice of the peace in respect of an offence to which this subsection applies [serious international crimes like torture, hostage-taking and war crimes], no warrant shall be issued under this section without the consent of the Director of Public Prosecutions.”

So, for the first time, the director of public prosecutions’ consent will be required before an arrest warrant can be issued in relation to suspected war criminals and torturers present in the UK.

Why the change? The government argues the present system is open to “abuse” by “political groups”. It claims that warrants can be obtained from magistrates on flimsy evidence and grandstanding campaign groups can vex the courts with applications for arrests simply to embarrass visiting foreign dignitaries.

But this seems to be an imaginary problem that doesn’t need fixing. Pressed to do so by lawyers and human rights organisations opposed to the change, the government has failed to provide any examples of the law being manipulated or of magistrates being over-eager to issue warrants. At the same time foreign governments have been lobbying the UK authorities to change the law.

Apart from a small number of backbenchers opposing the move – Ann Clywd notable among them – the change has cross-party support. If introduced it’s likely to mean delays when speed is of the essence. Those fearing arrest for international crimes are prone to flee at the first sign of danger. This could give them valuable extra time.

Clause 152 sends out the message that the UK is soft on crime if those crimes are war crimes and torture. The move coincides with William Hague and other ministers taking to the international stage to warn foreign dictators and their collaborators that there will be “a day of reckoning” and that “the reach of international justice can be long”. So why make it easier for them to evade justice on our own soil?

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