It is not at all surprising that the Israeli government is outraged at the attempt – initially successful – to obtain an arrest warrant in Britain against their former foreign minister Tzipi Livni. But their characterisation of it as a "diplomatic offence" is wide of the mark. Those who come to Britain are subject to its laws.
It is necessary to step back from the particular case and look at the broader picture. War crimes and crimes against humanity are international crimes transcending national boundaries. Universal jurisdiction to put those accused of them on trial is a logical development of that recognition. Such crimes are unlikely to be redressed in the country where the perpetrators hold political power. If they are not, they can only be adjudicated in courts of another state, or in an international court or tribunal.
Since the Second World War there has been a steady expansion of legal mechanisms designed to ensure that there is no hiding place for the perpetrators of international crimes. Complying with UN treaties such as the Geneva Conventions, many countries, including the UK, give their courts jurisdiction to try specific crimes committed outside their own territory.
There is an inherent tension between the sovereignty of nation states and the aspirations of international law. And, of course, there is the day-to-day practicality of international diplomacy between nation states under the threat of prosecution. Compromises always have been and will continue to be made.
Traditional immunities – of the head of state, of its diplomatic representatives, and of the state itself – have been sufficient to enable normal inter-state relationships to proceed. But these immunities are being whittled away where international crimes are concerned, and Tzipi Livni appears to have no claim to any of them. She is not a head of state; nor does it appear that her visit has a diplomatic purpose.
Ex-president Pinochet of Chile failed in his challenge to the attempt to extradite him to Spain to stand trial for torture. His case encouraged progress towards universal jurisdiction over crimes against humanity. The protestations of the Israeli government should not be allowed to interfere with that progress.
Sir Geoffrey Bindman represented Amnesty International and others in the Pinochet case. He is currently chairman of the British Institute of Human Rights
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