War Crimes Law (Belgium)

From Academic Kids

Belgium's War Crimes Law invokes the concept of universal jurisdiction to allow anyone to bring war crime charges in Belgian courts, regardless of where the alleged crimes have taken place. It is the only law which has been passed in the world which has done so.

Note that this is a Belgian law and is different from the International Criminal Court, which is an U.N. treaty body to try war crimes, and also different from the International Court of Justice, another U.N. body to settle disputes between countries. Both of these bodies reside in nearby The Hague, Netherlands, although some have said that American Servicemen's Protection Act passed by the US was also directed against the War Crimes Law.



The law took effect in 1993 and was expanded the following year after 10 Belgian soldiers were killed in Rwanda.

The law reached prominence after the massacre of 800,000 Rwandans, mostly ethnic Tutsis, by Hutus in the spring of 1994. According to the Washington Post, the process of prosecution of Rwandans in Belgium for crimes committed in the violence were set in motion by Martine Beckers, a Brussels resident, whose sister Claire called her to tell her of being attacked by soldiers, who soon after killed her, her family, and 10 other villagers who were unable to reach a United Nations peacekeepers' compound.[1] (http://www.washingtonpost.com/ac2/wp-dyn/A19835-2003Sep29?language=printer)

Universal jurisdiction

Countries have long claimed jursidiction over nationals of other countries or suits against countries themselves in matters civil or criminal where those foreign nationals are alleged to have committed crimes against the complaining country's nationals, or have committed crimes in the complaining country.

What made the Belgian law extraordinary and controversial was that Belgium claimed the right to allow anyone to submit a war crime for prosecution in Belgian courts that occurred anywhere in the world, whether or not on Belgian territory, and whether or not a Belgian national was involved as either criminal or victim. This concept is called universal jurisdiction or universal competence.

Problems with implementation of the law

The law soon ran into trouble when a number of parties worldwide filed cases criticized as politically motivated against leaders of various nations.

Over the years filings included cases against American officials, including George H. W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, Norman Schwarzkopf and Tommy Franks. Cases had also been filed against the leaders of many other countries, such as Iraq and Israel, and Cuba's Fidel Castro. The paperwork backing several of these filings was very limited, consisting out of a single fax or several pages.

Critics assailed the law as an attempt to circumvent the sovereignty of other states and become a venue for partisan show trials of propaganda value but no legal consequence.

In an effort by the United States to pressure Belgium, United States Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld threatened to remove the NATO Headquarters from Brussels unless the Law was changed.

Most cases dropped

On July 12, 2003, the incoming government of Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt announced that scrapping this law would be among the first acts carried out.

In September of that year, the Belgian Supreme Court threw out the cases against the former President Bush and other US officials, as well as Israelis.

Modified law and criticism

Six human rights groups (Amnesty International Belgium, La Ligue des Droits de l'Homme (League for the Rights of Man), Liga voor Mensenrechten (League for Common Rights), la Fédération Internationale des Droits de l'Homme (International Federation for Human Rights), Avocats sans Frontières (Lawyers without Borders) and Human Rights Watch) called that loss of the universal jurisdiction component "a step backwards in the global fight against the worst atrocities."

Human Rights Watch outlined the reduced scope of the law:

Belgian courts will only have jurisdiction over international crimes if the accused is Belgian or has his primary residence in Belgium; if the victim is Belgian or has lived in Belgium for at least three years at the time the crimes were committed; or if Belgium is required by treaty to exercise jurisdiction over the case. The new law also considerably reduces victims' ability to obtain direct access to the courts - unless the accused is Belgian or has his primary residence in Belgium, the decision whether or not to proceed with any complaint rests entirely with the state prosecutor. [2] (http://www.hrw.org/press/2003/08/belgium080103.htm)

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