Is Britain’s capitulation to Israel on the Livni arrest warrant an effort to protect Tony Blair from a similar fate?

by Yaniv Reich on December 16, 2009

Have you ever heard of a ranking official of a sovereign nation apologize to the official of another country for the perfectly legal machinations of its esteemed and independent judiciary? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

Yet this was the treat afforded to global audiences when Britain’s foreign secretary, David Miliband, called up former foreign minister of Israel, Tzipi Livni, to pander to her sensibility offended by the British courts, which had earlier issued an arrest warrant for her involvement in possible war crimes related in Gaza. More embarrassingly still, Miliband issued a statement that Britain would look into revising its own laws in order to concede to the Israelis’ indignation:

“The government is looking urgently at ways in which the UK system might be changed in order to avoid this sort of situation arising again.”

Today, as if to drive home the point, PM Gordon Brown called Livni and told her personally that she is welcome in the UK anytime.

What Foreign Secretary Miliband Should Have Said to Livni

This sycophantic behavior on the part of a country like the UK is shocking. One can easily imagine an alternative, much more respectable response to this Israel’s ruffled feathers, as suggested today in the Guardian:

“I am calling to explain why it would be wrong for me to apologise publicly or privately for the apparent decision by one of this country’s independent judiciary to issue an arrest warrant against you.

I should first explain that the British legal system has a strong tradition of fairness. All people under criminal investigation or criminal charge are entitled to the presumption of innocence: that is, they are presumed innocent unless and until convicted through a fair trial on the criminal standard of proof (that is, beyond reasonable doubt). Therefore, nobody here is saying you have been found guilty of any offence and any comments of this kind would be unacceptable.

It does seem, however, that a judicial decision was taken that there exists a reasonable suspicion that you committed a grave breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which is a criminal offence under our Geneva Conventions Act 1957. Of course, I have not seen any of the evidence that a court would have seen when making that decision. This is entirely right and proper: British ministers cannot interfere in such individual judicial decisions, as we must respect our ancient democratic tradition of non-interference with our independent judiciary. I hold the utmost respect for our independent judges.

I am sorry, but I hope you understand that it is not my job as foreign secretary or any part of this government’s job to second-guess a judge’s decision or to interfere with it.”

The author of this suggested response concludes correctly that Miliband’s actual response “implicitly criticise[s] the role of our independent judiciary, and which flies directly in the face of this country’s international legal obligations to “search out and prosecute” all those alleged to have committed war crimes. This sends a message that Britain is in fact a safe haven for suspected torturers and war criminals, especially if they come from a country which is identified as an ally of the United Kingdom.” Indeed.

Is Britain Trying to Protect Its Own War Criminals?

What explains this cowardly British response to the rulings of its own judicial system?

I argue that one powerful motivation was articulated perfectly by Israel’s Foreign Ministry, in the following thinly veiled threat:

“Israel would like to note that both Israel and Britain are in the midst of a joint battle against global terror and that British soldiers are working to defeat it in many arenas in the world.”

British government officials, particularly from Labor, are certain to have taken the hint. As Israel, a foreign country, was demanding changes in the British legal system, Tony Blair was recovering from a few intense sessions with the Chilcot Inquiry, a formal UK government investigation into British involvement in the disastrous Iraq war. This commission has examined, in particular, the conscious lies with which Blair motivated the country, and world, to invade another country that posed no imminent threat to anyone. As he explained in a recent interview in response to a question about whether he would have invaded Iraq even if he knew there were no weapons of mass destruction, he replied simply, narcissistically: ‘I would still have thought it right to remove [Saddam Hussein].’

This is not only a stunning admission, but one that could come back to haunt Tony Blair, George W. Bush, and their henchmen if universal jurisdiction ever becomes more widespread. It’s one thing to bend international law to your whims. Its quite another to bend your whims to, well, your whims.

The calculus probably running through the heads of Blair’s dear buddy Miliband and co-Laborite Brown is that its perhaps safer to protect your friends, and yourselves, by stamp out pesky claims to international law now while you can.

Britain’s response is far more consistent with this explanation than with its stated desire to be “strategic partners” with an increasingly delegitimized rogue state.

Related Posts:

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

1 philipblue January 11, 2010 at 4:05 am

In a one-word answer: no, it’s not.

I agree that the government’s response was cowardly in the extreme. After all, should Israeli politicians want to come to the UK without fear of arrest, all they have to do is come under a diplomatic aegis. Or alternatively, they could refrain from acts that make them likely to be arrested. Not so difficult.

Is the government trying to protect Tony Blair from facing war crimes charges? I think it’s unlikely. First, Blair has not been charged with war crimes in any legal jurisdiction that I’m aware of. This includes the ICC, which would have full authority to do so, should it so choose. I don’t think it’s a realistic threat. The war in Iraq may have been right or wrong, but I don’t think the ultimate decision will be made in court. The Chilcott Inquiry is certainly not going to do anything like this.

Second, since Gordon Brown loathes Blair, I’d tend to think that he wouldn’t stick his neck out to save him.

I think that the reasons for the government’s actions stem more from it’s edgy relationship with Israel. Its fear to be branded anti-semitic, terrorist-supporting, or similar, leads it to over-pander to pro-Israeli nuts.

2 Yaniv Reich January 11, 2010 at 8:07 am

I agree with you that this specific assertion about Blair is almost certainly false, but that’s one of the benefits of being a blogger 😉 One can speculate with a bit more flair than other forums might allow.

I do, however, think the general argument about universal jurisdiction is valid. Britain and the US (and many other Western nations besides) would not want to see universal jurisdiction too widely applied because it would come back to haunt them for their centuries of barbaric conduct all around world. Its one thing to put tin-pot African warlords in the ICC; its quite another to support an ostensibly Western allies’ leaders arrival in The Hague. Surely, this is on the minds of British leaders in the same way it is in US officials’.

Previous post:

Next post: