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UK justice secretary proposes expanded war crimes prosecution laws

[JURIST] Britain's Justice Secretary Jack Straw [official profile] on Tuesday proposed expanded laws [press release] that would allow British authorities to prosecute non-resident individuals suspected of war crimes. With the proposed changes, individuals who currently live in the UK, but are not residents, may be prosecuted for war crimes or genocide that took place as long ago as 1991. Such an extension would allow individuals suspected of war crimes in Yugoslavia [RAND backgrounder] and Rwanda [BBC backgrounder] to face charges in the UK. Straw said:

Serious crimes of this nature are best dealt with in the country where the crimes took place. That is where the evidence will be most easily accessible, and where witnesses will be easier to contact. It is also the best solution because witnesses and survivors can see justice being done. Failing that, these crimes should be dealt with by international courts or tribunals where they exist. However, there may be circumstances where these options are not available. We have therefore decided that we should strengthen domestic law in this area.

Under current law, the International Criminal Court Act 2001 [text], non-residents can only be prosecuted for atrocities that occurred after 2001. The UK's official advisor on terrorism, Lord Carlile of Berriew [official profile], has proposed amendments to the Coroners and Justice Bill [materials] to expand the power to prosecute to individuals who are merely present in the UK [Guardian report], which is more inclusive than Straw's proposal, which would only cover those living in the UK.

The current proposal comes less than a month after advocacy group Aegis Trust [advocacy website] recommended removing the 2001 statutory bar [JURIST report] from the current law. In their report [PDF], the Trust speculated that as many as 22 war criminals currently reside in the UK. In a similar plea in 2006, Amnesty International [advocacy website] released a report [PDF] critical of the British government for failing to prosecute two men suspected of genocide in Rwanda.

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