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Clarke proposes change to war crimes arrest warrants

The Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, yesterday outlined proposals aimed at making it more difficult for private individuals to secure arrest warrants for visiting foreign dignitaries they accuse of war crimes and other serious offences.

The coalition wants to change rules which allow anyone to attempt a private prosecution in cases where the UK has "universal jurisdiction", such as war crimes under the Geneva Conventions Act, torture and hostage-taking. These are crimes where people accused of committing them in another country can be brought to justice in UK courts.

Mr Clarke said he wanted to defend the right of anyone to apply for a warrant in these circumstances. But he said he was introducing legislation that would mean arrest warrants could not be granted to people acting privately in such cases without the permission of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

In the past, attempts have been made to obtain warrants for the arrest of visiting foreign dignitaries, including the former US secretary of state, Henry Kissinger, the Chinese trade minister Bo Xilai and the former Israeli defence minister, Tzipi Livni.

The Ministry of Justice is concerned that this situation is open to abuse, because the level of evidence needed to secure an arrest warrant is much lower than that used by the Crown Prosecution Service to decide whether such a case should be proceeded with.