Britain Amends Universal Jurisdiction Law

By John Bellinger
Monday, September 19, 2011, 10:25 AM

Britain amended its universal jurisdiction law last week to require private individuals who seek arrest warrants for foreign government officials for human rights offenses to obtain the consent of Britain’s director of public prosecutions.  Previously, a British magistrate could issue an arrest warrant based on a complaint filed by a human rights organization or other private individual, without consulting the British government.  British Prime Minister David Cameron had vowed to change the law after an arrest warrant was issued for former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni in December 2009, resulting in her cancellation of a trip to London.

The amendment is included in the Police Reform and Social Responsibility Act, which received Royal Assent last Thursday.  The amendment does not specify the standard the director of public prosecutions will use to give consent, but the international law immunities of foreign government officials are likely to be taken into account.

In a statement, British Ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould said “The change will ensure that people cannot be detained when there is no realistic chance of prosecution, while ensuring that we continue to honour our international obligations.”

Belgium and Spain had previously revised their universal jurisdiction laws (in 2003 and 2009) in response to complaints about the politicization of their judicial processes.  The limitations added to the British, Spanish, and Belgian laws have been criticized by human rights groups.