Israeli politician Tzipi Livni and her supporters are outraged that last weekend a British court issued a warrant to allow police to arrest her and question her about allegations that she committed war crimes during the Gaza offensive last Christmas. Ms Livni, Israel’s foreign minister at the time of the offensive, was planning a trip to the UK. The British government is under pressure to change the law to ensure that Israeli citizens are less likely to be subjected to the universal jurisdiction that the UK courts have to deal with allegations of war crimes. And it looks like it will do so, after foreign secretary David Miliband issued a grovelling apology yesterday to Israel for what has transpired.
The British government’s actions in seeking to elevate Israeli officials above the UK war crimes law is breathtaking given the UN commissioned Goldstone Report’s detailed findings about the breaches of the law by Israeli and Palestinian forces in that tragic conflict, which left more than 1300 Palestinians dead. No one, irrespective of who they are or what their nationality is, should be allowed to escape investigation for war crimes. That is why the UK has on its statute books war crimes laws that allow its courts universal jurisdiction.
Even though British behave unscrupulously and will manipulate the law to suit the Israeli government, Australia should not follow suit. In fact, the Rudd government should use the Livni case to make the point that we have similar war crimes laws in Australia and that any person, even if they hail from an ally such as Israel or the US, but who is suspected of committing war crimes should think carefully about visiting this country, because the government will not stand in the way of individuals and groups using the courts to ensure the Federal Police do their job and investigate allegations given to them should be properly investigated.
But don’t hold your breath.
The recent visit to Australia of the political leadership that orchestrated the Gaza offensive, former Prime Minister Elmud Olmert, is a case in point. Olmert, who visited Australia earlier this month, was feted by politicians from both sides. This, despite the fact that Richard Goldstone observed only six weeks earlier about Gaza offensive, that; “Repeatedly, the Israel defence forces failed to adequately distinguish between combatants and civilians, as the laws of war strictly require [and that] Pursuing justice in this case is essential because no state or armed group should be above the law.” Failure to do so “will have a deeply corrosive effect on international justice, and reveal an unacceptable hypocrisy. As a service to hundreds of civilians who needlessly died and for the equal application of international justice, the perpetrators of serious violations must be held to account.”
Despite entreaties from individuals and Palestinian groups in Australia to the Attorney-General Robert McClelland and AFP Commissioner Tony Negus about Olmert, the impression that would have been gained by Israelis, who have become more careful about travelling to countries where there is universal jurisdiction in relation to war crimes, is that Australian authorities, even when armed with the Goldstone Report, will not lift a finger to take action.
Greg Barns has provided pro bono legal advice to Australians for Palestine.