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Straw delays action on private war crimes prosecutions

5 March 2010

Jack Straw, the justice secretary, has decided to consult the justice select committee of the House of Commons before taking action to limit the right of private individuals to launch war crimes prosecutions.

The move is a response to the storm provoked by the decision of a district judge in London to issue an arrest warrant against the former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni at the end of 2009 over the bombing of Gaza.

Magistrates can issue a private warrant if persuaded there is prima facie evidence of an offence. Livni later cancelled a visit to London. During a visit to Israel in January, Baroness Scotland, the Attorney General, said the government was making “energetic efforts” to find a solution (see solicitorsjournal.com 6 January 2010).

Straw said it was open to any individual to initiate criminal proceedings, including for universal jurisdiction offences, by applying to a magistrate for a summons or arrest warrant.

“The facility for seeking an arrest warrant in these circumstances without the prior consent of the prosecutor is unusual,” he said.

“It is paralleled in only a very few other jurisdictions of which we are aware. In most jurisdictions prosecutorial consent is required.

“The government has considered this matter very carefully. It has concluded that there is a case for restricting to the CPS the right to prosecute this narrow range of universal jurisdiction offences, in circumstances where the offence is alleged to have been committed outside the United Kingdom by a person who is not a British national.”

Straw said the change, which would require primary legislation, would mean that in such cases it would no longer be possible for anyone other than the CPS or Attorney General to obtain an arrest warrant.

“This would ensure that action is taken only where the expert and independent investigators and prosecutors in the police and CPS are confident that there is a realistic likelihood of a successful prosecution,” he said.

Straw added that he recognised that the issue was controversial and, as a result, said he was consulting the justice select committee.

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