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Britain re-writes diplomatic protocol to protect Israeli officials

In recent weeks the UK government has once again shown itself to be entirely unwilling to hold Israeli war crimes suspects to account, to the extent that the Foreign Office is leaving its procedures open to ridicule.

At the end of last month, IDF Major General (res.) Doron Almog was scheduled to visit Britain in order to meet with the UK Task Force, an organisation that coordinates engagement by Jewish groups on issues relating to Palestinian citizens of Israel. Almog was presumably invited in his capacity as “chief of staff” for implementing a pending Israeli government plan to forcibly displace tens of thousands of Bedouin citizens in the Negev. But the military man is perhaps better known for narrowly escaping arrest in 2005 at Heathrow airport, after a warrant was issued based on allegations of war crimes committed in the Gaza Strip.

In 2011, the British government changed the legislation regarding universal jurisdiction following a high-level campaign by the Israeli government and its allies, with the intention of enabling Israeli officials to visit London without fear of arrest.

However, the new system did not guarantee that those with a case to answer would be free from the prospect of arrest. Thus in May last year, Almog aborted a speaking engagement in London “on the advice of the Israeli government”, while in December, Israeli minister Avi Dichter did visit, but stayed “in a hotel very close to the Israel Embassy in London”  with “an unusually large contingent of bodyguards”.

The most embarrassing example had come just after the universal jurisdiction law change, when then leader of the opposition Tzipi Livni embarked on a quick trial run – only to find that she had to rely on a Foreign Office-issued ‘Special Mission’ status to avoid arrest. This status, according to the FCO, is “a means to conduct ad hoc diplomacy in relation to specific international business” and grants the individual diplomatic immunity.

The need for such a measure indicates how even the weakening of the universal jurisdiction law left suspects like Livni and Almog vulnerable to arrest. Livni’s 2011 trip was marked by questions about the timing and legality of her Special Mission status. Now, the Foreign Office has moved to ensure there can be no such confusion with the implementation of a “new pilot process” for granting “consent or otherwise” to a foreign embassy’s request for a particular visit to hold Special Mission status.

This is the context for Almog’s cancelled June visit, for which he was given Special Mission status. The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights (PCHR) have explained how lawyers “challenged the decision to grant immunity to Mr Almog, given that it was made by the Government despite the existence of a warrant for Mr Almog’s arrest on war crimes charges” – but that “no answers have yet been received to the questions raised with the Government’s legal advisers.” Moreover, the apparent purpose of Almog’s trip had been to meet with an NGO – hardly consistent with “the criteria necessary to qualify as a ‘special mission'”.

Daniel Machover, solicitor at Hickman and Rose working as part of the legal team representing victims of war crimes in the OPT, told me that “visits to the UK by those suspected of committing very serious human rights abuses should arguably never be granted ‘special mission’ status”, and that there especially “can be no good reason for the Foreign Secretary to trample on judicial decisions by doing so where, as in the case of Doron Almog, a court in this country has already decided that a war crimes suspect should be arrested”.

Almog was not the only recent visitor afforded immunity from an arrest warrant for war crimes. IDF Chief of Staff Benny Gantz arrived in London on 2 July as “the personal guest of the British Chief of General Staff” for what was the first such trip for an Israeli army chief in 15 years. Ahead of the visit, a Foreign Office source told Israeli media that “the United Kingdom welcomes Israeli officials and will see to it that all visits are properly secured”.

PCHR, commenting on Gantz’s visit, said that the high-ranking official is “suspected of involvement in the commission of war crimes” and “particularly with respect to his role in the November 2012 attack on the Gaza Strip”. Again, the UK government awarded Special Mission status to Gantz, even though he “would not ordinarily be entitled to immunity” and despite the fact “the UK is under a binding legal obligation to search for and prosecute those suspected of committing war crimes”.

The Foreign Office seems prepared to risk “the status of special mission falling into disrepute as a vehicle to protect friends of a given government from the due process of the criminal law for alleged serious human rights and humanitarian law abuses”. Recall how Britain’s ambassador to Israel Matthew Gould personally contacted both Almog and Livni after the universal jurisdiction legislation was amended to assure them that they could now visit Britain without risking arrest.

The British government is demonstrating remarkable contempt for the principles of accountability and justice for victims of war crimes – first changing the law and now making a mockery of diplomatic protocol in order to protect Israeli officials. As PCHR concluded:

There exists a clear risk – as demonstrated by the granting of immunity to Mr. Almog and Mr. Gantz – that Special Missions will be used to protect allies of the Government, undermining the basic principle of equal application of the law and the UK’s international legal obligation to seek out and prosecute suspected war criminals.

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