The parliamentary war crimes group was set up to deal with Nazis, but we have had to revive it to keep Rwanda in focus, write Andrew Mitchell MP and Lord Mendelsohn*
The journey began in 1986. In October of that year, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre handed the British government a list of 17 alleged Nazi war criminals residing in the UK. It was well known that under the Attlee government the UK absorbed 90,000 Displaced Persons, mainly from Eastern Europe, in the aftermath of the Second World War. In the absence of any serious effort to look into individuals’ wartime past, and in some cases active clandestine collusion to help them settle here, Nazi criminals — and especially those who had been part of the Einsatzgruppen death squads — seeped in among them, believing they would never have to answer for their actions. Indeed, no questions were ever asked.
You would imagine that revelations of the presence of alleged murderers on our shores would have prompted urgent action to bring them to justice and that the idea that Britain was some sort of safe haven for war criminals was an affront to UK values. After all, Britain was the land that stood up to Hitler. Britain had been at the forefront of the Nuremberg prosecutions and proudly championed values of justice and the rule of law.
As the volume of alleged war criminals in the UK multiplied with more names uncovered, surely inaction would not only be deeply immoral but inherently paradoxical? Unfortunately, it was politics and prejudice that intervened.
Stunned by the disclosure, a group of parliamentarians did indeed decide that things needed to change and set up a cross-party group on war crimes. Led by former Home Secretary Merlyn Rees and Greville Janner, it carried the support of politicians of all stripes. Its original purpose was to clarify questions relating to the presence of the suspects as well as the legal options available to bring them to justice. At the time there was no provision under UK law to prosecute non-British citizens (even naturalised ones) accused of war crimes that had been committed elsewhere.
Forceful, formidable and fiercely articulate, the group successfully forced a government inquiry which found there were grounds for a change in the law to allow those who had committed crimes, irrespective of their original nationality, or the date or location of the crimes, to be tried in the UK. The group dedicated itself to not only to secure a law change but also to ensure that it was applied.
After several hard-fought years which polarised both politicians and the public, the War Crimes Bill was brought before Parliament in 1990. But one major obstacle remained. While the Bill sailed through the House of Commons, the House of Lords overwhelmingly rejected it – twice. The collision between the two Houses prompted the government to invoke the Parliament Act with the effect of vetoing the Upper House. And so the 1991 War Crimes Act was passed and, with it, a definitive legislative framework which would allow suspected war criminals to be investigated and prosecuted in the UK regardless of their nationality, the country where the crimes occurred and the amount of time that had elapsed since those crimes were committed.
It was a landmark victory and the message was clear: it was not a campaign for revenge but for the triumph of justice. It was not only a matter of morality but cherished principles. Crucially, this was not an issue only for Jews but for everyone. We said that never again will the UK allow people suspected of war crimes or genocidal murder to evade justice in our country. However, our resolve would soon be put to the test again.
In 1994, within three years of the War Crimes Act, a horrific genocide started in the heart of Africa. Over a 90-day period in Rwanda, one million people, predominantly Tutsi, were murdered by their Hutu neighbours at a pace which exceeded the industrial mechanisms of the Holocaust. If the war crimes campaign meant anything, it was that those responsible for atrocities should now understand that they would be held accountable for their actions. But here we were witnessing a genocide which had stark echoes of the Holocaust: years of meticulous planning, including legislative and psychological processes, which lay the foundations for the attempted extermination of a victim group. And, as happened with Nazi criminals and collaborators after the Second World War, once the killing in Rwanda stopped, many of the perpetrators fled to neighbouring countries and beyond.
Over the intervening years, many have returned voluntarily to Rwanda to be tried in the gacaca courts. Some have been extradited to Rwanda and others have faced justice in the countries to which they fled — including from the US, Canada, France, Belgium and Sweden.
Britain, sadly, is a glaring exception. Decades on, five people suspected of taking part in the genocide are living freely in our country. In 2015 and 2017, a British district judge and the High Court ruled that even though the evidence was compelling, none could be sent back to Rwanda because such action could breach their human rights. This was a regrettable decision, but the War Crimes Act should have given the UK an alternative route forward. We have a comprehensive set of laws which allow for prosecutions, providing the investigations passed the tests of evidence. Alas, efforts to bring suspects to justice in the UK have been lacklustre and painfully slow.
Exasperated by inaction and apparent indifference, a group of senior MPs and Peers has decided it is time to reconvene the All-Party Group on War Crimes, with the sole purpose of seeing what can be done to accelerate the required investigation and legal proceedings.
As co-chairs of this group, we took inspiration from what had come before. One of us, as the young Conservative MP for Gedling at the time, was amongst the majority that voted in favour and greatly admired the leadership demonstrated by Margaret Thatcher to push the legislation through. The other of us was the clerk to the group who had assisted in the investigation of the Nazi suspects and helped to pilot the campaign through its various stages, and who also recalls sitting in the gallery of the House of which he is now a member, watching with dismay as it voted against the Bill.
Mark Twain is said to have remarked that history doesn’t repeat itself but it often rhymes. What became clear during the original war crimes debates was that government inertia was not due to a paucity of persuasive arguments or evidence but the political will to act. Now we have a legal framework to act, but little appetite to pursue it.
As with the original group, we are not presupposing the guilt or innocence of the suspects. We simply want to ensure that due process is followed and that justice, already excessively delayed, is no longer denied. After all, it equally cannot be right for these five suspects to have these allegations hanging over them for an astonishing thirteen years if they turn out to be unfounded.
We must be clear that failure to act would send a very dangerous and damaging message: that the UK may once again be harbouring war criminals. That would be shameful. The souls of those murdered in the genocide cry out for justice. Britain is a country with a rule of law and accountability — values that we should cherish and uphold and promote at all times. The War Crimes Act was a battle won. The fight against war criminals continues.
*Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP & Lord Mendelsohn are co-chairs of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on War Crimes