CORRECTED: Legal principle at the root of Britain-Israel standoff

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The diplomatic crisis between Britain and Israel is based on a legal principle known as "universal competence."

It states that courts should be allowed to indict and try suspects of crimes regardless of whether the offences were committed in the country where the court is based, or even by nationals of that country.

In practice, the principle is most often defended only for crimes considered so heinous that they offend against all of humanity.

Such offences generally include war crimes, crimes against humanity, genocide and torture.

Defenders of universal competence laws, who include the human rights group Amnesty International, argue that by enacting such laws states prevent the perpetrators of such crimes from seeking safe haven in foreign countries.

In the case of Britain and Israel, diplomatic tension has arisen from attempts by pro-Palestinian groups to have Israeli officials arrested if they set foot in the United Kingdom.

In December 2009, a British court issued an arrest warrant for Tzipi Livni, who was Israel's foreign minister during her country's deadly offensive against the Palestinians of the Gaza Strip in late 2008 and early 2009.

The British warrant, which was withdrawn when it emerged that Livni had not visited the country, came two months after a United Nations report into the Gaza offensive concluded that both Israel and the Palestinians had been guilty of war crimes. Israel has refused to accept the ruling.

Other leading examples of the use of the principle in recent years:

- In 1993, Belgium passed a universal competence law which was later used to prosecute people over the genocidal massacres in Rwanda in 1994.

The law was to be widely invoked to defend a range of causes, including legal action against US and British officials for the 2003 war in Iraq.

In 2003 the Belgian legislation was considerably watered down, notably making it much more difficult to pursue suspects from countries considered to be democracies.

- The Spanish magistrate Baltasar Garzon has invoked universal competence in several high-profile cases, and notably when he issued an arrest warrant for the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet in 1998.

Recognising the same principle, the British government executed Garzon's warrant when Pinochet made a visit to London. The former dictator was held in Britain for 16 months before finally being allowed to return home to Chile rather than being extradited to Spain.

- In 2000 the west African state of Senegal used a universal competence statute to order the arrest of the former dictator of Chad, Hissene Habre, over human rights abuses committed during his rule.

However, the case was thrown out, and Habre still lives in Senegal, albeit under house arrest.

The creation in 2002 of the International Criminal Court (ICC) to pursue action against the worst crimes was seen as a way to defend the principle of universal competence via an international body.

However, groups such as Amnesty argue that states should also uphold the principle of universal competence, to make life as difficult as possible for anyone seeking to escape the rap for humanity's worst crimes.

© 2010 AFP

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