The Special Report

5th August 2001

Tyrants fear long arm of Belgian law

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In just a few months a little-known law on "universal competence" has turned this small northern European country into a beacon for human rights activists and enemies of oppression everywhere - and created a serious diplomatic headache for its own embarrassed government.

Ariel Sharon is worried enough to have appointed a Belgian lawyer to represent him, though no one knows if Saddam Hussein is similarly concerned. Augusto Pinochet has had cause to fret about ending up in a Brussels court. So has Laurent Gbagbo. 

It may sound an unlikely fact about the land of beer, chocolates and Tin Tin, but Israel's prime minister, the Iraqi president, the former Chilean dictator and the president of the Ivory Coast have all come to fear the long arm of Belgian justice. 

In just a few months a little-known law on "universal competence" has turned this small northern European country into a beacon for human rights activists and enemies of oppression everywhere - and created a serious diplomatic headache for its own embarrassed government. 

Now, however, a battle is looming over official plans to revise the controversial legislation, which allows national courts to prosecute foreigners for human rights abuses committed abroad. 

No one minded when the 1993 law - one that literally knows no bounds - led to the jailing of four Rwandans, including two nuns, for their part in the 1994 genocide in their homeland, perhaps because the showcase trial helped exorcise troubling memories of Belgium's own cruel colonial heritage in central Africa. 

It was also relatively easy since all four were already resident in Belgium and the Kigali government was happy to cooperate with a groundbreaking event: the first time a jury had judged foreign citizens for crimes committed against other foreign nationals in a foreign country. 

But things became more complicated when, under the same law, investigating magistrate Patrick Collignon opened a file on Israel's Likud prime minister for his alleged involvement in massacres at Palestinian refugee camps in Lebanon in 1982. 

Not all Israelis think Sharon is without his share of the blame for the Sabra and Shatila killings, which were carried out by Lebanese Christians: he was, after all, forced to resign as defence minister in 1983. But there is fury in the Jewish state at the sheer chutzpah of the idea that he should be tried in Brussels. 

Shimon Peres, the Labour foreign minister, was quick to retort that King Leopold II had been guilty of genocide in the Congo, while the Israeli media has referred contemptuously to Belgium as a state in the process of collapse, and dominated by the far right Vlaams Blok. 

The timing of the case against Sharon, brought by survivors of Sabra and Shatila, has been extremely awkward for Belgium. It comes just as Belgium starts the delicate task of running the EU's rotating presidency. It was no coincidence that the Israeli leader dropped a scheduled visit to Brussels from his recent European tour. 

As the Middle East is on the brink of disaster and the EU anxious to raise its profile, this froideur is a real handicap, even if matters are not likely to proceed very fast. "With the best will in the world," one commentator observed, "an investigation into events that took place 19 years ago in two foreign lands could be expected to be long and arduous." 

But the Israeli leader is not alone in facing Belgian justice: this week examining magistrate Damien Vandermeersch ruled admissable a complaint against Saddam by five Kurds accusing him of crimes against humanity after the Gulf War in 1991. 

Iraq's dictator may not lose much sleep over this: after all, there is little chance of him transiting through Zaventem airport or being collared while sightseeing in the Grand Place. But several of his top associates have been forced to curtail their travel abroad after threats from human rights groups: the message - tyrants not welcome - is a positive one. 

With the number of cases piling up, the Belgian government is now proposing a "filter" to raise the threshold for applying the law to avoid a situation where "everybody would prosecute everybody", as the Justice Ministry put it. 

Another option under consideration is suspension of the admissibility of a complaint against a head of state, prime minister or other government minister until after he or she leaves office. 

Pressure for change has come from the foreign minister, Louis Michel, normally an exponent of what Britain's Robin Cook used to call an "ethical foreign policy". But the Socialists and Green members of the coalition government have insisted on putting off any detailed discussion until next year. 

Principles apart, the Brussels public prosecutor's office is simply unable to handle the workload, which would involve sending teams of investigators to the countries in question. It cannot compete with the resources of the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in the Hague and its Rwandan equivalent in Tanzania. 

But the long-awaited permanent international criminal court, which should have universal jurisdiction, has still not come into existence (and in any event will not have the power to try cases retroactively). 

Belgium's plucky little legal system, meanwhile, grinds on. Some 150 Ivorian nationals are deep into proceedings against President Gbagbo and their defence minister, Moise Lida Kouassi, also for crimes against humanity, including persecution, torture and kidnapping. 

It now seems certain that what seemed like a good idea at the time will have to be re-thought, though some believe Belgium deserves praise for blazing a trail in a difficult and highly contentious area. 

World Despatch, The Guardian

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