Universal Jurisdiction

Since 2005 many Israeli visitors and speakers have faced the threat of being arrested due to the abuse of universal jurisdiction legislation. For the past two years the JLC has coordinated work with a number of partners to resolve a problem that struck at the very core of the relationship between our community and the State of Israel. The JLC decided to get things moving in the middle of 2009. We did this not just to defend Israel, but also because many Jewish charities were being directly affected by the fact that their guests faced the prospect of arrest and harassment. We commissioned a legal opinion from Lord Pannick QC which recommended a change in the law. We wanted to protect universal jurisdiction itself, a vital innovation that grew out of the Holocaust, while preventing it from being abused. The day after Lord Pannick sent us his Opinion, an arrest warrant was issued for the then Opposition Leader of Israel, Tzipi Livni.

Whilst she had already cancelled her appearance at a Jewish charity event, the police went looking for her anyway. We immediately sent our legal opinion to the Government and Opposition and worked with CFI, LFI and LDFI to begin generating support for this law change. Within a few days, Gordon Brown had publicly promised to change the law as soon as possible. However, the last Government failed to push a new law through all of its stages so work recommenced straight after the General Election. The Conservative Party had already placed an advert in the Jewish Chronicle promising to change the law if they were elected. The Liberal Democrats told us that they went into the General Election with an open mind, resisting pressure to oppose any changes. The new Government found a suitable Bill to include the changes and defended the clauses against some tough opposition in the Lords. Finally, two years after we started working on the issue, the changes passed onto the Statute books two weeks ago.

We cared about the issue because of how it was being used against Israeli visitors and the impact that this was having on Jewish community charities and organisations. But the Government realised that the law was a ticking timebomb buried under the bilateral relations between the UK and all of its major allies. The same powers used to get an arrest warrant against Tzipi Livni could equally be applied by activists against former US Secretaries of State Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, or American Generals, Russian leaders and Chinese officials. By making the case for a change about the wider issue and not just about Israel, and by working collectively with the organisations above, and others such as BICOM and the Board of Deputies, we have achieved our goal: universal jurisdiction has been strengthened by preventing its abuse, and Israeli visitors are protected from malicious and vexatious arrest.