Belgium is poised to water down a controversial war crimes law that has caused the country no end of diplomatic embarrassment, writes Andrew Osborn
The Guardian (England), Mar. 28, 2003
The long arm of Belgian justice has fingered sulky heads of state from Israel to Cuba for war crimes in recent years but it is just about to undergo an amputation – a permanent one.
Laws are usually amended to make them stronger but the opposite will be true in the case of Belgium’s global war crimes legislation.
The law, which gives Belgian judges the right to try cases of war crimes committed by anyone, anywhere, at any time — has been highly contentious since it first entered into force in 1993.
Last month Belgium’s supreme court caused uproar by ruling that Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, is eligible to be tried in Belgium for war crimes once he has left office.
Survivors of a 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Beirut had lodged a complaint in Belgium against Mr Sharon and were anxious to see him held to account for the atrocities – in a Belgian court.
Mr Sharon was Israeli defence minister at the time. Nor is he the only head of state to watch in horror as his detractors file lawsuits against him in tiny Belgium.
Similar cases have been mounted against other world leaders including the Cuban president, Fidel Castro, the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, and the former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Belgium’s diplomatic relations with a whole host of countries have suffered as a result, and the authorities say they are bracing themselves for the day when a complaint is lodged against US president George Bush and UK prime minister Tony Blair for war crimes in Iraq. It is only a matter of time, officials believe, before such a complaint lands on their already overflowing desks.
A recent move by seven Iraqi families to bring charges against former US president George Bush (senior), the current secretary of state, Colin Powell, the current vice-president, Dick Cheney, and retired US general, Norman Schwarzkopf, has also reminded the Belgians, if they needed a reminder, that the floodgates are well and truly open.
The Iraqis hold the four men responsible for the bombing of an air raid shelter in Baghdad during the 1991 Gulf war in which 403 civilians perished and want them prosecuted for war crimes in Belgium.
The Belgians’ already battered relations with Washington have sunk to a new low as a result, with the US warning Brussels that it risks losing its status as the headquarters of Nato unless it puts its house in order.
“We have warned our Belgian colleagues that they need to be very careful about this kind of effort, this kind of legislation, because it makes it hard for us to go to places, it puts you at such easy risk,” said Colin Powell.
“For a place that is an international centre, they should be a little bit concerned about this.”
The truth is of course that critics of the country’s war crimes law have long struggled to understand why Belgium should be the world’s judge and jury. And the fact that the world’s first permanent international criminal court (ICC) has now opened for business in the Hague makes Belgium’s position all the more untenable.
All of this is not lost on the ruling elite — it is now scrabbling to water down the offending law. Under amendments likely to be passed as early as this week by the Belgian parliament the seemingly never-ending flow of politically embarrassing cases should be staunched.
In future, alleged victims of crimes against humanity that took place outside Belgium will only be able to file a case in Belgium if they have resided in the country for at least three years.
Even then, their complaints will not automatically be investigated. It will be up to the public prosecutor’s office to decide whether Belgium is the right place to deal with the matter and it will have the power to refer complaints to the newly created ICC or the complainant’s home country.
Belgium’s justice minister will also have far more discretion to block embarrassing cases. “We will put up a filter for those cases which are not linked to Belgium to allow for a speedier dismissal of purely political complaints which don’t have anything to do with genocide or war crimes and are lodged as propaganda,” explains Vincent van Quickenborne, a Liberal senator.
The case against Ariel Sharon will not, however, be affected. The new regime will only apply to cases lodged after July of last year, and the complaint against Mr Sharon was submitted in July of 2001. That means more diplomatic strife for Belgium in future, but the Belgians are not thinking about that now — they believe they have put the lid back on Pandora’s box.
They may be a little sorry to see one of their most high profile and ethical laws watered down so drastically but they recognise they had no choice.
“The law on universal jurisdiction should be saved (as a result of the amendments),” opined the daily Le Soir. “Some say that there is nothing universal about it anymore – but the majority realise that there was no other way out. A compromise had to be found.”