Britain amended a law Thursday to make it tougher for ordinary citizens or activist groups to get arrest warrants against suspected war criminals or torturers _ a move that angered some human rights activists but pleased Israel, whose visiting officials had been under frequent threat of detention.
Britain's universal jurisdiction law allows British courts to prosecute foreigners accused of crimes against humanity, no matter where the alleged crimes were committed. The principle of the law is rooted in the belief that certain crimes _ such as genocide, hostage-taking and torture _ are so serious that they must be addressed wherever a suspect can be detained.
But the liberal application of the principle in Britain had led to criticism, particularly among supporters of Israel who felt pro-Palestinian groups were using it to harass the Jewish state. The issue had become a sore point between Israel and Britain.
In the past, attempts have been made to obtain warrants to arrest visiting foreign dignitaries from a host of countries, including former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, Chinese Trade Minister Bo Xilai and Tzipi Livni, former foreign minister and now leader of the opposition in Israel.
The threat of arrest strained diplomatic relations between Britain and Israel.
Last year, both Deputy Israeli Prime Minister Dan Meridor and Livni canceled trips to Britain, fearing arrest. While in 2009, Palestinian activists tried unsuccessfully to have Defense Minister Ehud Barak arrested during a visit to Britain.
"We are glad that Britain has made the right choice," said Israeli Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Ilana Stein. However, she did not comment on whether Israeli officials would now resume trips to London.
Some human rights attorneys, however, disagreed with the change, saying it could keep real criminals from seeing justice.
"This marks a backward, nervous step by the U.K., which is reluctant to bring tyrants and torturers to justice if it suits the government to sell them arms or to turn a blind eye to their human rights violations," said Geoffrey Robertson, who as a U.N. appeals judge delivered key decisions on war crimes.
"The change in the law has nothing to do _ as the U.K. claims _ with insuring that cases proceed on solid evidence. No district court judge would issue an arrest warrant lightly."
Although universal jurisdiction is a concept in international law, British judges have been more open to the concept than those in other countries.
Spain and Britain jointly pioneered the universal jurisdiction concept when, in 1998, Britain executed a Spanish arrest warrant for former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet on torture claims. Pinochet was kept under house arrest in London until he was ruled physically and mentally unfit to stand trial and released in 2000. When he was arrested, however, Pinochet was no longer head of state.
In December 2007, Israeli public security minister Avi Dichter, a former chief of the Shin Bet internal security agency, turned down an invitation to visit Britain after being advised he could be arrested for his role in the 2002 assassination of a Hamas militant leader that killed 14 other people, including nine children.
Doron Almog, a retired Israeli general, was forced to stay on board his plane at London's Heathrow airport after a tip-off that police were waiting outside to arrest him in 2005. The Israeli jetliner flew him back home, and the warrant _ obtained on the basis of his troops' demolition of Palestinian homes in a combat zone _ was eventually dropped for procedural reasons.
Daniel Machover, another human rights lawyer who was involved in the Almog case, said he was concerned that with government cutbacks there may not be enough resources to ensure cases received the attention they deserved.
"I very much hope that the DPP (director of public prosecutions) follows through on his promise to act independently, that the resources will be there and that there won't be delay," Machover said. "I fear if that doesn't happen we will quite quickly become a safe haven for people suspected of very serious crimes."