Human rights activists celebrated in 1993 when Belgium adopted a law empowering its courts to prosecute persons accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity no matter where the crimes were alleged to have been committed. The human rights community called the law a victory for the emerging principle of "universal jurisdiction" over the most vile of human crimes. But in the years since, practical considerations have moved Belgium to modify its allegiance to the universal jurisdiction principle.
Prague, 23 June 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Belgian leaders -- who have been withdrawing for years from a 10-year-old assertion their courts can apply universal jurisdiction to crimes against humanity wherever alleged -- decided this weekend to pull back from that position.
Negotiating to form a new government, the Liberal Party of Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt and the Socialist Party said this weekend they agreed to amend the law once more. This time, they propose to strip it of any claim to jurisdiction except when Belgian interests are directly involved.
Human rights organizations, which celebrated the original law, are dismayed. Geraldine Mattioli, international justice fellow in the Brussels Office of Human Rights Watch says, "We regret that the government is about to reduce dramatically the scope of this law, which was really at the lead of the fight against impunity."
News services used journalistic shorthand this weekend to report the development. Reuters, for example, said this: "Belgium said on Sunday it would change a controversial war crime law." That's not entirely accurate. Belgium will not have acted until a new government forms and parliament agrees. However, as Mattioli notes, it may be a fair prediction.
"It looks fairly certain that the government will propose to make these changes, indeed. And then we'll see what is the trend in the parliament. So I surely would expect that parliamentary trends would follow the government on this one," Mattioli says.
Among activists around the world specializing in international justice, the expressions "impunity" and "universal jurisdiction" have taken on specific meanings. "Impunity" refers to situations in which people charged with crimes against humanity are assured of avoiding prosecution. "Universal jurisdiction" describes the principle that some crimes are so heinous they should be liable to prosecution anywhere.
Human Rights Watch and other human rights groups charge that the United States is involved in a worldwide campaign to establish impunity for U.S. citizens.
"I think that Belgium is experiencing what lots of countries are currently experiencing in terms of pressure by the United States. You know the administration [of U.S. President George W. Bush] is pushing really hard on many, many countries in the world to sign these bilateral agreements, [shielding] their citizens from the reach of the International Criminal Court," Mattioli says.
The International Criminal Court is a new tribunal headquartered in The Hague to pursue major human rights violators who might otherwise not be prosecuted. The United States, citing the possibility of politically motivated actions, not only has refused to participate in the court's work but also has persuaded a number of countries to sign agreements exempting U.S. citizens.
Belgium's Verhofstadt denies, however, that the proposed changes in Belgium's law are in response to U.S. pressure. He said this weekend that several occasions of misuse of the law prompted the modifications.
As Verhofstadt put it: "Certain people and certain organizations, pursuing their own political agenda, systematically use this law in an abusive manner."
It cannot be denied, however, that U.S. authorities wielded a big stick in opposing the Belgian claim to universal jurisdiction. Belgium's capital Brussels is an important center for international institutions. One of the most important of these is NATO. U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld suggested recently that the Belgian law could threaten that distinction.
"Until this matter is resolved, we will have to oppose any further spending for construction for a new NATO headquarters here in Brussels until we know with certainty that Belgium intends to be a hospitable place for NATO to conduct its business, as it has been over so many years," Rumsfeld says.
In recent weeks, Belgium has avoided embarrassing prosecutions using escape clauses added to the law over the years. Earlier this month, it transferred to Israel a case alleging that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon committed war crimes in 1992 when he was defense minister.
It sent to the United States a suit filed by a group of Iraqis against U.S. General Tommy Franks over Franks's actions as commander of the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
One recent outspoken opponent of the Belgian law is Foreign Minister Louis Michal, who has said that it is turning the nation into an international laughingstock. The law and the uses to which some people are putting it, he said last week, are "mad, ridiculous, irrational, and malign."
The occasion for Michal's outburst? Belgium's small Flemish nationalist party NVA filed suit last week against Michal himself for approving the sale of 5,500 machine guns to Nepal. Belgian law forbids arms exports to countries engaged in civil war.