Update: the changes to UK law came into force on 6th April 2010.
On July 7th 2009, the Aegis Trust secured a major victory in its campaign to strengthen British law on genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. As described below, in the past year, Aegis has carefully documented two major loopholes in British law on international crimes. One of these loopholes was that people can only be prosecuted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity if they committed those crimes after 2001. This does not cover those suspected of involvement in, say, the Rwandan genocide, or atrocities committed in Bosnia. On 7th July 2009, the government announced that it was going to backdate jurisdiction to January 1991. This announcement was a direct result of Aegis' media and parliamentary campaign to strengthen the law in this area.
On 26th October 2009, the campaign secured another victory when the second loophole was effectively closed. Following concerted lobbying from the Aegis Trust, a coalition of peers and leading legal figures, the Government tabled a fresh amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill that will help close the legal loophole which has in the past allowed genocide and war crimes suspects to visit the UK or live here for years without fear of prosecution.
The loophole exists due to the fact that current UK legislation on genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity applies only to people who are legally defined as resident in the UK. This does not include anyone on student, business, tourist, academic or skilled / domestic worker visas, or anyone who has been refused asylum under Article 1F(a) of the Refugee Convention but who cannot be returned home for fear of persecution.
Under the Government's new amendment however, all those who have leave to enter the UK to work or study, and anyone seeking asylum or who has been refused asylum but cannot be returned home, would be considered legally resident for the purposes of this legislation. A provision has also been added to include 'any individual who is in lawful custody in the United Kingdom', for example a person who has been detained under immigration powers or following a declaration by the Home Secretary that their presence in the UK was 'not conducive to the public good'.
'I am grateful to those who have campaigned for the change and raised it for debate in the context of the Coroners and Justice Bill. I met John Bercow and Mary Creagh from the All Party Parliamentary Group for Genocide Prevention in May and they made a very powerful case for the inclusion of genocide as an extra-territorial offence within our law. Since then I have consulted widely with colleagues about the best way to proceed, and this announcement is the result of those discussions.' Rt. Hon Jack Straw MP, Secretary of State for Justice, speaking about the government's proposed changes to the law on genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity and paying tribute to the Aegis co-ordinated All Party Parliamentary Group on Genocide Prevention, July 7th 2009
'This is a very important piece of legislation. I am overjoyed that the government has closed this legal loophole. In Rwanda in 2006 I met women whose families had been murdered in the genocide there. As soon as I realised there was a gap in UK law I knew I had to act. I thank the justice secretary for taking action and I pay tribute to the Aegis Trust which has worked tirelessly on this issue for many years.' Mary Creagh MP, speaking about the successful Aegis Trust led campaign to close loop-holes in British law on international crimes, July 2009
'I was delighted ..... to hear the commitment that Mr Straw gave to seeing that a change was made in the law. This is a very good example of where the Government have listened carefully to representations made, not just within your Lordships' House but to groups such as the Aegis Trust.' Professor Lord Alton of Liverpool, speaking during the House of Lords debate on the Aegis Trust amendments to the Justice and Coroners Bill, July 2009
'We are dealing now with the extraordinarily important and grave issues of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. I wish to express my thanks to those other noble Lords whose names appear on the Marshalled List, the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, who has been an enormously wise adviser on this matter, and the Aegis Trust, which has done a tremendous amount of work in briefing Members of the House' Lord Carlile of Berriew QC, speaking during the Lords debate on the Coroners and Justice Bill, October 2009
'I should like to add that we are extremely grateful to the Government for having been so patient in listening to our concerns and, indeed, for having moved so far in meeting them. We are of course also indebted to the organisations that have provided consistent and expert advice: the Aegis Trust, Redress, JUSTICE and African Rights' Baroness D'Souza, speaking during the Lords debate on the Coroners and Justice Bill, October 2009
Working in association with Doughty Street Chambers and legislative drafter Ronan Cormacain, Aegis produced the 'International Criminal Court Amendment Bill' to remove loopholes in UK law on international crimes. The Bill would:
- Remove the need for complicated tests of whether or not a suspect could be classed as 'resident in the UK', by extending the law to cover any suspect found on UK soil, with the exception of foreign officials benefitting from diplomatic immunity. So, for example, individuals suspected of committing recent atrocities in Zimbabwe or Darfur could then be arrested if visiting the UK.
- Retrospectively apply of the jurisdiction of UK courts so that crimes committed prior to 2001 can be tried. This is not the same as retroactively creating a new law - which would be contrary to the basic legal principle of 'no crime without law'. The crimes over which the writ of the UK courts would be conferred were already crimes under customary international law, conventional international law, and, in many cases, in British law also. For example, genocide has been a crime in customary international law since 1948, in Rwanda since its accession to the Genocide Convention in 1975 and in the UK since the Genocide Act 1969. Therefore any Rwandan génocidaires in the UK cannot argue that they did not know that their acts were not criminal in 1994.
The contents of the Bill were picked up by Lord Carlile of Berriew QC, the government's Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legisliation, Baroness D'Souza, convener of the cross bench peers and Lord Falconer QC, the former Lord Chancellor, who have decided to table amendments to the Coroners and Justice Bill along these lines. You can read the text of the amendments here.
At the second reading of the of the Coroners and Justice Bill, many Peers, spoke strongly in favour of the amendments. You can read the transcript here. At the Committee Stage of the reading on July 7th 2009, Peers welcomed the government's move to retrospectively apply jurisdiction to 1991 but spoke strongly of the need now to move from a residence requirement for prosecution to a presence requirement. This issue came up again at Report Stage of the Bill on October 26th 2009. During this debate the government tabled fresh amendments to the Bill - these amendments did not go as far as allowing for a simple presence test for prosecution but they did offer a full definition of residence and demonstrated that the government had come a long way to meet the concerns of the Peers and those campaigning for a change in the law.
To follow the progress of the Bill please click here.
There has been some activity in the House of Commons, where Evan Harris MP has tabled an Early Day Motion which has received over one hundred and twenty signatures so far. In addition, the Genocide Prevention APPG, administered by Aegis and formerly chaired by the Speaker, John Bercow MP (CON) and Mary Creagh MP (LAB) has been credited by the Ministry of Justice with making a powerful case for reform. As reported in The Times on July 7th an MOJ spokesperson said that 'the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Genocide Prevention has made a very powerful case for the inclusion of genocide as an extraterritorial offence within British Law'.
Aegis is proud that its efforts to highlight this issue among parliamentarians also led to the decision by the Joint Committee on Human Rights to hold an inquiry into 'UK legislation on genocide and related offences'. Aegis submitted written evidence to the inquiry and Nick Donovan, head of policy and research was invited to give oral evidence to the committee. You can watch the oral evidence session here. The Committee published the results of its inquiry in July 2009 'Closing the Impunity Gap: UK law on genocide (and related crimes) and redress for torture victims'. This report took up all of the Aegis Trust recommendations.
The Aegis Trust is also joining with other organisations such as Redress and Amnesty in advocating a change in the way international crimes are investigated in the UK. There is a need for a robust, independent war crimes unit with a remit to pursue investigations across the UK. The War Crimes Unit was set up to investigate Nazi war criminals but was disbanded in the late 1990s - it should be reconstituted. To learn more about this, please see our reports: Enforcement of International Criminal Law and Suspected War Criminals and Genocidaires in the UK: Proposals to Strengthen our Laws.For all media coverage of this campaign, please click here.