In a report released today, the Parliamentary Joint Select Committee on Human Rights says inconsistencies in the way the UK applies international law have created an “impunity gap” for perpetrators of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. It commends the Government's recent decision to amend to legislation to partially address the problem, but calls for it to close remaining loopholes in the law and to re-establish a specialist war crimes unit to investigate people in the UK who are suspected of such offences.
Under the law as it stands, no-one in the UK can be prosecuted for war crimes in internal armed conflicts, genocide or crimes against humanity committed before 2001. Even if people here are suspected of committing such offences since 2001, they can only be prosecuted if legally resident here, not merely if they are present in the country (for eg., visiting on a student or business visa).
The Aegis Trust worked with MPs and Lord Carlile QC, Lord Falconer QC and Baroness D’Souza to prepare amendments to the Coroners and Criminal Justice Bill which would have closed these loopholes. Tabled in the House of Lords, they triggered the Government’s decision last month to extend jurisdiction of UK courts to prosecute international crimes as far back as 1991.
As the Committee points out, however, this only takes jurisdiction back to the date on which Crimes Against Humanity became recognised as crimes in international law. It argues for jurisdiction on genocide and war crimes in internal armed conflicts to be extended back to the dates on which they were recognised in international law (e.g. 1948 for genocide).
The Committee also supports Aegis’ call for replacement of the ‘residence’ test with a simple ‘presence’ test, so that anyone present on UK soil could be subject to jurisdiction on international crimes, not only those who are legally resident. This is the test used by other common law countries such as Canada, the US, New Zealand, South Africa.
“The Aegis Trust is delighted that the Joint Committee on Human Rights has adopted all of our recommendations for strengthening UK law in this area,” says Aegis’ Head of Campaigns Nick Donovan, whose evidence is quoted in the Committee’s report. “We too commend the Government for the bold progress made last month, and call on it to finish the job by closing remaining legal loopholes which benefit suspected war criminals in the UK.”
In June Aegis published a report that brought together, for the first time, details of people entering the UK who are suspected of international crimes. The report – 'Suspected war criminals and genocidaires in the UK: Proposals to strengthen UK law' – examines 18 cases, including those of suspected genocidaires from Rwanda, alleged torturers from Zimbabwe, Iraq, Liberia and the Congo, and alleged war criminals from Afghanistan, Sudan, Sierra Leone and Sri Lanka. They include such people as a Lieutenant Colonel from KHAD, the Soviet-era Afghan government’s secret police; an alleged Tamil Tiger assassination hit squad driver, and a member of Sierra Leone’s ‘Mosquito’ rebel group, notorious for murder, rape, looting, burning, sexual slavery and forced amputations.The Joint Committee’s report comes at a time when the workload of the UK Border Agency’s war crimes team is increasing. Several weeks ago, the Government revealed that in the first six months of 2009, recommendations of immigration status refusal following investigation were up four-fold on the preceding four years. Since 2004, there have been 421 cases where immigration action was recommended and 30 cases where the matter was referred was made to the police. How many of these people are currently at large in the UK is unclear.