Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Mistrust, mistakes and misdirection

Remember Britain's "War Crimes Act"? Passed in 1991, amid a faint public hysteria at the thought that if foreign bad guys took refuge in the UK, we couldn't prosecute them. The headline baddies at the time were aging Nazis who may or may not have been living in Britain for years, but there was always an assumption that the long arm would also scoop up truant Serbs, Russians, Chechens, miscellaneous Africans, and others who might be prone to attract adverse media coverage to their atrocities. Basically, the law allows certain categories of criminals to be tried in British courts if they are foolish enough to come within their reach, even if what they did was legal in their own country, and even if it happened long before the law was passed.

I know, I know. A lot of us said so at the time. But you can't argue with Nuremberg, and that's the precedent. A perfect illustration of hard cases making bad law.

In the news today, that law has come back to bite Britain in the proverbial. Hearing the news that Tzipi Livni, a former Israeli government minister, was due to visit London, some enterprising Palestinian activists went to a magistrate and got a warrant issued for her arrest. Ms Livni promptly cancelled her visit.

(I did always like to dream of doing that to George W Bush, but it was hard to find anything concrete to pin on him. "Starting a war on false pretexts" is not considered a crime nowadays, even though it was in 1945. Plus, he never visited.)

Anyways, the British ambassador in Tel Aviv was hauled before the Israeli foreign minister and given a stern lecture about what would follow if Israeli government officials decided they could no longer visit the UK. Normally these affairs are couched in diplomatic language, but based on the British government's reaction ("This can never ever happen again"), I can only imagine this one was pretty brutal. The Israeli government waxes indignant still. Deputy foreign minister Danny Ayalon splutters that the whole thing "makes a mockery of universal jurisdiction".

I've always thought that "universal jurisdiction" was a silly idea. (Something I have in common with Henry Kissinger, apparently.) Although let's not forget it was originally an Israeli idea in the first place.

But never mind the hypocrisy of all parties concerned here. Frankly, between Palestinian terrorists, Israeli politicians and the British foreign office, this looks to me like a perfect opportunity to reintroduce trial by combat. What really bothers me about this story is what the British government is promising to do next.

Foreign secretary David Miliband says: "The procedure by which arrest warrants can be sought and issued without any prior knowledge or advice by a prosecutor is an unusual feature of the system in England and Wales. The Government is looking urgently at ways in which the UK system might be changed in order to avoid this sort of situation arising again."

It's not about making sure Israeli ministers can visit safely. If that was all they wanted, they could just give the woman diplomatic immunity. What Mr Miliband is talking about, here, is establishing political control of an inconveniently-independent judiciary. No warrants to be issued unless a prosecutor - a political appointee - says so.

Now, Britain's law lords are, as a rule, neither stupid nor shy. I don't imagine that they'll fail to see this move and block it, which shouldn't be too hard. My guess is that by the end of the month, the government's proposals will have quietly morphed into amending the War Crimes Act to raise the bar for issuing a warrant (which is clearly what they should have proposed to begin with). But the whole episode is interesting for the light it casts on the thinking of the current crop of politicians: "If it's going wrong, take it over".

Which goes back to the issue of trust.

Delegation demands trust. As long as you trust your underlings, you can give them jobs to do and then let them get on with it. Modern life teaches us to think of "control" as something absolute, fine-tuned, responsive - the kind of control we have over a car, over our phone's ringtones, over our own webpage. But politics is supposed to be more subtle than that. In politics, no matter how powerful you are, you have to let other people make decisions. That's what politics is.

Because they will make those decisions anyway. You can't stop them. You can lead them, but only if you're willing to treat them as "on your side". And that means identifying your interests as, if not identical, then at least aligned with theirs. The skill of politics is to persuade other people that this is, in fact, the case.

But If you treat your underlings as enemies, they will take on the role. What choice do they have?

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