British citizens or residents accused of genocide in Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s could be tried in British courts under planned legal changes announced by the government yesterday.
British courts already have the power to try nationals or British residents for genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity committed anywhere in the world after 2001.
The government said it was proposing changes to legislation to extend these powers back to 1991, meaning that it will cover wars in the former Yugoslavia and the 1994 Rwandan genocide when 800 000 people were killed, Reuters reports.
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said some of the perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide, some of them living in Britain, had never faced justice.
“Until now the Rwandan conflicts, like the former Yugoslavian conflicts, have stood outside our legislation on trying those accused of genocide. Today we are taking action to correct this,” he said, speaking at a news conference with visiting Rwandan President Paul Kagame.
“My message to those accused is simple: Your time is up. You may have run from responsibility, but you can no longer hide from justice,” Brown said.
Kagame told Brown he appreciated his commitment to dealing with the justice problems facing Rwanda.
In a statement to parliament, Justice Secretary Jack Straw said war crimes or genocide were best dealt with in the country where the crimes took place. Failing that, they should be dealt with by international courts.
But there may be circumstances where those options were not available and that was where the tougher British law came in.
The legal changes which the government plans to make by amending legislation already before parliament will apply to British nationals or residents, including those who commit crimes and subsequently become resident in Britain.
Charities that campaign against crimes against humanity Aegis Trust, JUSTICE and REDRESS welcomed the government’s decision but said the changes did not go far enough.
They urged the government to apply the law to people who were simply present in Britain, rather than setting a residency requirement.
Aegis Trust, which has campaigned for tougher laws, said in a recent report that “significant numbers” of suspected war criminals were either in Britain, or had visited the country.
The suspects came from Rwanda, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Zimbabwe, Sudan, Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia, it said.