According to Home Office figures, there are nearly 100 war crimes suspects who have made immigration applications to the UK in the last year. Whilst it may be suggested that these suspects should not be granted a right to remain in this country, in reality, the authorities are in a difficult position. Countries from which these suspects come will often have a chequered history of respect for human rights, which will mean that there are very persuasive grounds on which to refuse to deport – the prohibition on torture is absolute, meaning that a person cannot be returned if there is a possibility that he will be tortured in the country of origin, even if he is suspected of committing genocide in that country.

Instead of suggesting a return, this figure (revealed by a freedom of information act request made by the BBC) has resulted in calls from human rights groups to put more resources into prosecuting those suspected of war crimes in this country. These groups rely on a principle of international law which states that, for certain crimes, there is an obligation to either extradite or prosecute. Where it is not possible to extradite, it follows that under this principle, a person must be prosecuted. War crimes and related offences (such as torture) are unusual in that they can be prosecuted in the UK despite the alleged offences taking place abroad and the complainants and defendants having no connection to the UK.

An interesting example of this in practice can be seen in Finland. In 2009, the Finnish court refused to extradite a Rwandan man accused of genocide in Rwanda. Instead, he was prosecuted in Finland, with the Finnish court setting up temporarily in Kigali to hear evidence there, as well as in Tanzania. The court heard evidence from 68 witnesses and the defendant was eventually convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.

This example gives some hint as to the reason why, thus far, there have been few similar attempts to prosecute in the UK: the resources required in order to carry out a successful prosecution are enormous. Nevertheless, in the context of mounting pressure from NGOs it seems likely that, resources allowing, more prosecutions will follow.

Click on the following link for the BBC article ''Nearly 100 war crimes suspects' in UK last year'.