More than just words? Uk law on genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity Introduction

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More than just words? UK law on genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity

I will, if I may, make just one introductory remark on the human stories behind the legal terms genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

My family has a close friend who was a holocaust survivor. Mala Tribich, then aged nine, was among the thousands of Jews forced into the Piotrkow-Trybunalski ghetto in Poland at the start of World War II. It was there that her mother and sister were shot by the police.
She was deported to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany- where she remained, dangerously ill with typhus, until the camp was liberated by British troops in April 1945.
After the war, in the context that Britain faced acute labour shortages, many suspected war criminals, including members of the SS, were able to make their way to the UK.
They remained here, largely undetected until the 1980s, when a campaign by Parliamentarians led to the Government setting up a Commission of Inquiry.
The Inquiry was led by William Chalmers and Sir Thomas Hetherington, one of my distinguished predecessors as Director of Public Prosecutions. They recommended that the law should be changed so that people suspected of war crimes committed in Nazi Occupied Europe could be prosecuted in British courts. The inquiry led to the War Crimes Act of 1991 and the subsequent establishment of the war crimes unit in the Metropolitan Police.


Since 1945 there have of course been many other mass atrocities. I’d like to highlight one in particular for the purpose of this discussion: the genocide in Rwanda.

14 years after these events, the UK is seeking to extradite four category one génocidaires resident in the UK for trial in Rwanda, following a request from the Rwandan government.
The request has been granted by the magistrates’ court and by the Home Secretary. The appeal against the decision of the magistrates’ court will be heard in the High Court in December.
As part of the extradition process, the CPS considered whether it would have jurisdiction to prosecute the four fugitives should extradition fail. This type of review is consistent with the obligation on States to either extradite or prosecute perpetrators of certain international crimes.
We concluded that we didn’t have jurisdiction to prosecute them for acts of genocide or for war crimes committed in Rwanda in 1994.
I will turn to the reasons for this in more detail. But before I do, let me outline the current state of UK law on genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. I will also include the international crimes of hostage-taking and torture in this review.

UK law

1st September 2001 is a useful reference point. It’s the date on which the International Criminal Court Act (ICCA) came into force.

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