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World: Momentum Grows To Strengthen International Systems Of Justice

  • Don Hill

Momentum surged this week on many fronts in the international drive to deny those accused of crimes against humanity safe places to hide. RFE/RL reports on activities in Strasbourg, New York, Brussels, and elsewhere around the world.

Prague, 31 January 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Belgian Vincent Van Quickenborne was not yet born in 1964 when the African country of Rwanda gained its independence from Belgium. He was a student in 1994 when Rwanda's majority Hutus and minority Tutsis engaged in mutual massacres that claimed the lives of more than half a million people.

At 29, Van Quickenborne is now Belgium's youngest senator and a member of the country's largest party, the Free Market Liberal Party. He cites his country's colonial links with Rwanda as part of the reason for Belgium's passionate interest in bringing war criminals and human rights violators to justice. He says a traditional Belgian sense of justice is another: "It's part of our culture, and it's also part of the history of our country to defend those kinds of victims."

Momentum mounted this week in the worldwide drive -- in Strasbourg, Brussels, New York, and elsewhere -- to set in place an international system that will leave people who commit war crimes and atrocities no place to feel safe from prosecution.

The Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, meeting this week in Strasbourg, heard an appeal to strengthen commitments to the International Criminal Court from the influential U.S.-based watchdog group Human Rights Watch.

In Brussels today, the national Senate is dealing with amendments to strengthen Belgium's universal-jurisdiction law. At the United Nations, countries party to a treaty creating the International Criminal Court (ICC) are preparing to elect the ICC's first 18 justices. And in New York, Human Rights Watch called today for an international campaign to overcome U.S. opposition to the ICC.

In 1993 and 1999, Belgium adopted universal-jurisdiction legislation authorizing its national courts to prosecute people accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes, even when the alleged crimes had no particular links to Belgium.

Under this law, cases were brought against figures such as Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, as well as many lesser officials. But judicial decisions in Belgian courts derailed most of the cases.

The Belgian Senate today is taking up amendments to reinstate some cases and strengthen to the law.

Senator Van Quickenborne leaves no room to wonder about where he stands on the question. "We should be very clear to all those people who are thinking or trying or effectively doing those kinds of things [atrocities] that we cannot cope with them, we cannot do dealings with them, that we cannot do politics with them, that the only place where they should be is in court, and that they should be convicted and put behind bars," Van Quickenborne said.

In Strasbourg, where the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly is convened this week, the director of the Human Rights Watch International Justice Program, Richard Dicker, called for a reinforced commitment to the ICC. "At the Council of Europe's Parliamentary Assembly, we called on parliamentarians gathered here in Strasbourg to return to their respective capitals as committed advocates on behalf of the International Criminal Court," Dicker said.

Assembly President Peter Schieder responded by calling on all of the council's 44 members to ratify the ICC statute. All but 11 have already done so.

Dicker told our correspondent today in a telephone interview that these developments constitute "enormous progress." "There has been enormous progress in the effort to establish the permanent International Criminal Court. Next week in New York at United Nations headquarters, the 87 states that have ratified this treaty to date will elect the 18 jurists who will sit on the bench of this court," Dicker said.

All these people -- Van Quickenborne, Dicker, and Schieder -- join in expressing dismay at U.S. opposition to the ICC. U.S. President George W. Bush withdrew the United States from the ICC treaty, which his predecessor, Bill Clinton, had signed. Bush has also ordered the State Department to seek bilateral immunity treaties in which the United States and other countries agree not to turn over each other's citizens to the court.

Eighteen countries so far have signed such treaties with the United States.

Dicker said, "Unfortunately, the government of the United States, driven, we believe, by an ill-conceived ideological obsession, is continuing its efforts to undermine this new, important human rights institution [the ICC]."

U.S. leaders say the United States objects to ICC jurisdiction over its citizens because of the danger of politically motivated prosecutions of Americans. The Bush administration has said it would refuse to participate in international peacekeeping missions if U.S. personnel were liable to prosecution.

In New York today, Human Rights Watch said it is submitting a petition to all world governments asking them to refuse to enter into immunity agreements with the United States or to refuse to ratify agreements already reached.