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House of Lords Defeats British War Crimes Bill

June 6, 1990
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Differences between justice and retribution seem to have been at the heart of the conflict that ended with the resounding defeat early Tuesday morning of Britain’s War Crimes Bill in the House of Lords.

The measure, adopted by the House of Commons on March 19 by an overwhelming 273-60 majority, was rejected 207-74 by the Lords, some of whom cited reasons varying from old age and the passage of time to the judicial question of the validity of retribution.

The legislation would have permitted British courts to prosecute alleged Nazi war criminals living in Britain. It is now dead, at least for this session of Parliament.

Rabbi Marvin Hier, dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center for Holocaust studies in Los Angeles, whose lists of alleged Nazi war criminals living in Britain initiated the inquiry, criticized the House of Lords for their defeat of the bill.

“It is kind of ironic that such an august body should decide that suspected Nazi war criminals are old and feeble-minded and cannot withstand the test of coming before the bar of justice because of their age,” Hier said in New York, “and yet the House of Lords are of a similar age themselves but feel themselves competent to pass such legislation.”

He said a judge is perfectly competent to decide whether the defendants could stand trial and that the Lords were usurping the judge’s role.


One of the bill’s most impassioned supporters was Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, chief rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth, who stressed that the proposed legislation had nothing to do with anti-Semitism. He said that many who spoke against it “are among the staunchest friends of the Jewish people.”

But, he continued, “I am bound to add that so were some of those who were appeasers of the Nazis in the 1930s.”

The chief rabbi also took issue with the disbelief that alleged war criminals could receive a fair trial at a time so far removed from their deeds. He said that view “cast an unwarranted slur on our judiciary” by prejudging the fairness of the system and those who administer it.

Lord Swaythling, a supporter of the bill, pointed out that it had been mistakenly implied that revenge was central to Judaism and that vengeance was prescribed in the Old Testament.

Making his first speech in the house, he said, “The Jewish faith is centered on the idea of justice, not revenge. Those who believe that an eye-for-an-eye means revenge have no knowledge or understanding of the basic tenets of Judaism.”

“The phrase means only that justice demands equal treatment,” he said. He suggested that trials of alleged war criminals would help to keep alive the awareness of the horrors of the past.

Lord Beloff, who said he lost family and friends in the Holocaust, maintained that the magnitude of the crimes involved made the notion of revenge “absurd.”

But Lord Shawcross, a prosecutor at the Nuremberg war crimes trials after World War II, said retribution did not cease to be retribution by pasting the label “justice” on top of it.

He recalled that in 1948, public opinion had dictated that war crimes prosecutions should cease.

He said, “Indeed, the efforts of those like myself, who wanted to do more to punish those who had slaughtered the Jews, were not helped by various events in the meantime, including the activities of the Stern gang and the bombing of the King David Hotel.”


Lord Hailsham, perhaps the Lords’ most influential opponent to the bill, questioned the chief rabbi’s belief that justice could be done to war crimes suspects at this late date. He cited numerous reversals of verdicts on appeal because of the defense’s inability to put together a fair case due to “inordinate delay.”

In London, Ephraim Zuroff, director of the Wiesenthal Center in Israel, said, “The feeling is that the bill still has strong support in the Cabinet. And there is a strong likelihood that it will be resubmitted in the House of Commons, based on the large majority in Commons.

“We’re hopeful that it will be resubmitted, and we are calling the government to take whatever steps are necessary so that it will be resubmitted. Because every day that goes by until that bill is passed is only in favor of the perpetrators.”

Zuroff, who made up the first list of Nazis in Britain sent to Parliament, said he is meeting with Home Office officials Thursday to discuss the various options available to the government and to submit new information on additional suspects who immigrated to England after World War II.

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