British War Crimes Bill Floundering, Might Incur ‘crisis of First Magnitude’
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British War Crimes Bill Floundering, Might Incur ‘crisis of First Magnitude’

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Britain’s War Crimes Bill, which sailed through the House of Commons with an overwhelming majority less than two months ago, may be defeated in the House of Lords.

The measure, backed by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s government, would permit the prosecution of Nazi war criminals in British courts.

The strength of its support in the House of Commons was measured by a 273-60 favorable vote on March 19. But opponents in the upper chamber of Parliament have dug in and stand a good chance of killing the bill.

According to Lord Denning, one of Britain’s senior and most respected judges, if the government insists on pushing the bill through in opposition to the House of Lords, “there will be a constitutional crisis of the first magnitude.”

Denning referred to a head-on clash between the Commons and Lords, which hasn’t occurred since 1949.

He spoke to the Jewish Chronicle after a disastrous week for supporters of the legislation in the House of Lords and prospects of a further defeat there next month.

Lord Campbell of Alloway, a Scottish lawyer, successfully amended a Scottish law permitting live evidence in court by television from abroad. His amendment passed 137-62.

The Lords are due to give a second reading of the bill on June 4. But Campbell has introduced a motion to drop the second reading.

“Constitutionally, the bill could go back to the Commons again,” Denning said, “and they could insist on it going through again to the Lords. “But it would mean a crisis between the Commons and the Lords,” he said.


Legal experts do not believe the Thatcher government, having declared the bill a matter of conscience, will go to the mat on the issue.

“I think the government will accept defeat if the Lords throw it out next month,” said Professor Michael Zander of the London School of Economics. “Given the governments’s general difficulties, I wouldn’t be surprised if they let it drop,” he added.

Conservative M.P. Teddy Taylor, a member of the All Party Parliamentary War Crimes Group, agreed. “If the Lords accept Campbell’s amendment, then it is dead,” he said.

On the other hand, he said, “the government has said it will do everything it can to push the bill through.”

Taylor believes the measure should be enacted even if no one is ever prosecuted under it.

Sir Thomas Hetherington, the former director of public prosecutions, on whose recommendations the War Crimes Bill was drafted, said, “It would be a great pity if the Lords threw it out.”

Labor M.P. Greville Janner, a leader of organized British Jewry, thought it anomalous that an unelected body should kill a measure overwhelmingly adopted by an elected body.

A Home Office spokesman said, “It is not a question at the moment of the bill being abandoned. However, this is not like a normal government bill, and it has been made clear that it is a matter of conscience.”

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