This week has seen a startling series of events redefine the way the UK acts on international law, and the way British governments understand the power of the courts. Under the principal of Universal Jurisdiction, an arrest warrant was issued by Westminster magistrates court for former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni, accused of war crimes during the most recent invasion of Gaza. As soon as this information reached the Israel, its government reacted furiously (which was to be expected). Israel's ambassador to the UK, Ron Prosor, said in a statement:
"The current situation is absurd and unacceptable in equal measure. Israelis cannot continually be held hostage by fringe groups of anti-Israel extremists, preventing politicians, businessmen and officers from visiting the UK."
While Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu described the situation as an "absurdity".
What happened next was that the British government leaped into action, apologising to Israel and promising to better control the way international law is applied to Israeli officials in Britain. Gordon Brown and David Miliband both rushed to condemn the warrant, assuring Israel that it'll never happen again.
So why is it that a senior Israeli politician can't be arrested in the UK for alleged war crimes? The answer, as usual, is that British government ministers have acted entirely out of personal self interest. The precedent that would be set by arresting Livni would make it far more likely that British officials could be arrested for their own war crimes. And that just wouldn't do.
The way international law is applied currently suggests that the only people who can ever face it are either (a) a few of the operators in the Yugoslavian war of the 90s and (b) Africans. Israeli and British and other 'western' government officers are effectively exempt not because of any weakness in the law, but because every single time an arrest warrant is issued, or an arrest is attempted, the move will be swiftly quashed by politicians. Who aren't supposed to have that much sway when it comes to the courts.
One of Livni's statements was particularly telling:
"I have no problem with the world wanting to judge Israel. A problem arises the moment [Israeli Defence Forces] soldiers are compared to terrorists."
By 'terrorists', she's obviously referring to Hamas (the political organisation of which, the UK does not designate to be a terrorist group). Well I don't have such a problem with that comparison, Ms. Livni. But it seems that as ever, uniformed soldiers are seen by Britain as being naturally better than rag-tag freedom fighters. Unless they're our rag-tag freedom fighters, of course.