As a global army of millions of peace protesters attempts to stop the march towards a US-led war in Iraq, Belgium's legal system has put leaders on notice that they run the risk of being held personally accountable for their actions once they leave office.
Amid a heavy sense of impending conflict, human rights activists have found some cheer in the recent revival of Belgium's ‘genocide law'. The aspirations of the 1993 law, which granted Belgium universal jurisdiction to try violations of the Geneva Convention wherever in the world they may have occurred, appeared to have been dealt a mortal blow last June.
A lower court ruled that a controversial war crimes case against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was inadmissible because he was not on Belgian territory at the time legal proceedings were launched by 23 Palestinian survivors of the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon, which effectively negated the law's universality principle.
Although the Belgian Senate recently approved what was a scaled-down revision of the original law and the Court of Cassations kicked out the appeal against Sharon last week, representatives of the survivors were in high spirits. The Court's decision will allow the prosecution of others connected to the massacre and leaves open the possibility of legal action against the Israeli premier once he leaves office.
“This is one of the most important rulings there has been in international law,” said Lebanese human rights lawyer Chibli Mallat, who instigated the case against Sharon.
His feelings were echoed by human rights groups. “This is an important victory for atrocity victims,” Reed Brody, a lawyer with New York-based Human Rights Watch, was quoted as saying.
Lucas Catherine, who sits alongside Mallat on the Sabra and Shatila Committee, told me: “We were overjoyed when we heard the ruling. Before the verdict, there was a feeling of despair amongst us because we feared that the court would submit to political pressure.”
“Now we are determined to bring to justice everyone who was behind the massacre,” he vowed. He said that lawyers representing the victims would be pressing ahead with the case against Director-General of the Israeli Defence Ministry Amos Yaron, military commander in Lebanon at the time of the carnage. They would also pursue the Lebanese officers who actually carried out the atrocities.
“Although Sharon was at the top of the chain of command, this is not just about him,” explains Catherine. Sharon's alleged role in the 1982 massacre of up to 2,000 Palestinian refugees by Israeli-backed Phalangist Militia in the two refugee camps led to his forced resignation as defence minister after an Israeli inquiry found him personally responsible for the atrocities.
“I think the ruling is shaking up the political environment, especially the international one,” said Joeri El-Hazimi, a socialist member of the City Council in Mol.
Although the Sharon case has been dismissed, the continuing prosecution of Yaron has sent shockwaves through the Israeli political establishment and threatens to upset already strained Belgo-Israeli relations. Israel temporarily recalled its new ambassador for consultations and President Moshe Katsav fired off an angry letter to King Albert saying that Belgium should not act as if it were “God's deputy”.
Some prominent Belgian Jews have also reacted strongly to the ruling. “This move has everything to do with politics and nothing with justice,” said Betty Dan, head of Radio Judaica in Brussels.
The United States which, like Israel, does not recognise the newly founded International Criminal Court (ICC), has been a vocal critic of ‘tiny' Belgium's genocide law and these latest developments could see Brussels' transatlantic relations worsen.
The kingdom is already walking a tightrope with Washington, where it is regarded as being part of an ‘axis of weasels', with France and Germany, for blocking a US bid to send NATO forces to Turkey in preparation for an increasingly likely clash with Baghdad.
Universal dreams and home truths
The recent political debate has been a rocky one and has mainly revolved around the question of whether Belgian courts should be allowed to prosecute foreign political leaders. There are currently 25 outstanding cases against foreign heads of state and politicians, including Palestinian President Yasser Arafat and Fidel Castro of Cuba.
Critics of the law shudder at the PR disaster the law's original universal jurisdiction has unleashed on Belgium's foreign relations. They argue that Belgium cannot become the world's court and that is the ICC's job. The Liberals, including Foreign Minister Louis Michel, have favoured a major watering down of the law.
Advocates of strengthening the law, including the Greens, cite the ‘universal competence' granted by the Geneva Convention that obliges signatories to the treaty to try crimes against humanity no matter where they occur. They also note that certain countries have not signed up to the ICC.
Late last month the Senate approved a compromise bill that permits the courts to hear outstanding litigations but limits future legal action. It will only allow cases in which Belgians are the victims, or where atrocities were committed in Belgium or by Belgians, except in certain exceptional circumstances that are not covered by the ICC's jurisdiction.
“People (still) have an instrument to take up their rights against some of the most influential and important people in the political world,” El-Hazimi said.
The bill also contains a built-in filter to avoid politically inspired trials from occurring. The Attorney General will have new powers to judge whether allegations of crimes against humanity are valid. Politicians also agreed that serving leaders would continue to enjoy immunity against prosecution while in office.
Although a far cry from the law's original ‘universality', many Belgians are proud that their country has not buckled to international pressure. “I think we should not be too naïve to think this law can bring all individuals who committed atrocities to justice,” El-Hazimi said.
“But it fills me with some confidence and pride to know that not everything is or will be corrupted by political pressure,” he concludes.
This article appeared on Expatica in February 2003.