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International War Criminals are Safe from Arrest in UK – But a Leading Lawyer Plans to Change That

Helena Kennedy KC is set to introduce a Bill to the House of Lords so those suspected of atrocities can be arrested in Britain

British human rights lawyer, Helena Kennedy KC
Helena Kennedy KC is set to reintroduce a Bill in the House of Lords so authorities can arrest war criminals in the UK. Photo: Joshua Stein

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A British human rights lawyer has warned international war criminals are free to visit the UK without fear of arrest as she announced plans to close the loophole.

Helena Kennedy KC, a genocide expert and Labour peer, said British authorities are powerless to arrest or prosecute visitors suspected of crimes which “outrage our common humanity”.

Anyone suspected of genocide, war crimes or torture is subject to “universal jurisdiction” under international law – meaning they can be arrested in any country which has agreed to the principle, regardless of where they are suspected of having committed those atrocities.

Domestic law limits that to people who either have British citizenship or reside here, which “really narrows it down,” Kennedy told Byline Times in an exclusive interview.

On 22 March, Kennedy will reintroduce her Genocide (Prevention and Response) Bill to the House of Lords, which aims to widen the scope of that law. “[Currently], if a general who’s been involved in war crimes in Ukraine came into Heathrow Airport, we wouldn’t be able to do anything about it,” she explained, noting the UK has only prosecuted three people via universal jurisdiction in the last 20 years. “You have to change that and make [the legislation] much wider. You have to say: if you’ve come through Britain you’ll be arrested.”

Kennedy argues it would be an “easy change” and would help deliver justice to victims across the world. “It would get you people who have run those Uyghur camps [in China]. They might come here because they want their children to go to university or they might come for a graduation, we’d be able to arrest them,” she said.

Changing the law would keep the UK in step with the US which changed its rules last year under the Justice for Victims of War Crimes Act.

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Kennedy’s bill also calls for the Mass Atrocity Prevention Hub – a unit in the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) – to be expanded. The unit, which was established in September 2022, monitors and tracks perpetrators of serious crimes across the world, but, according to documents published in January 2023, has just three full-time staff.

The FCDO declined to provide up-to-date staff numbers or detail what funding it received. Expanding the unit, Kennedy will argue in her bill reading, would enable the UK to keep track of developments abroad and see genocidal intent before people are targeted.

Those signs, she argues, are very recognisable, and can be traced back to how the Nazis treated democratic institutions, and victims of the Holocaust, before the genocide started.

“They go after the judges, they go after the lawyers, they go after the media. Jewish people couldn’t be professionals, they weren’t allowed to hold down most jobs. It started with [the Nazis] stripping people of their professional qualifications,” Kennedy explained.

By working alongside the War Crimes Unit inside the police, the unit could monitor developments abroad and see if someone suspected of carrying out genocide was on the way to the UK, or if a people were threatened with genocide.

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Kennedy argues a better-resourced team could have seen the first signs of genocidal intent in China with the treatment of the Uyghurs, and acted.

“I think that we would have been able to say, some years back: something is going on here. They’ve started throwing folk in jail, they’ve started banning men from having beards.”

In 2022, the UK Government described the human rights abuses in Xinjiang, against the Muslim Uyghur people, as “absolutely horrific”.

At the time, estimates suggested up to one million Uyghur Muslims were being held in concentration camps in the region and subjected to “re-education programmes”.

The bill could also deliver justice to people whose cases have never been heard – such as women in the Congo who were subjected to mass-rape more than 20 years ago, and the scores of Yazidi women who were subjected to war crimes by ISIL.

“For example, Germany has prosecuted some of the [ISIL] perpetrators who have gone back to their country for genocide. We’ve not done that,” Kennedy said.

She expects her Labour party, currently leading the polls by a double-digit margin – to take note, as well as the Conservatives.

The FCDO pointed Byline Times to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) for comment. At the time of publication, the MoJ had not responded.

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