Belgium is to make changes to its internationally contentious global
war crimes legislation which risk resurrecting a politically
sensitive case against the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon.
Belgium gave itself the right in 1993 to try cases of war crimes
committed by anyone, anywhere at any time. It has since had to deal
with a series of often embarrassing lawsuits against high-profile
leaders such as Mr Sharon.
However, legal setbacks to the “universal competence” law have
blunted Belgium’s zeal to act as an international war crimes court.
Last June a Belgian court appeared to kill off the case against Mr
Sharon when it declared that he could not be tried because he wasn’t
physically present in Belgium.
That obstacle now appears likely to be dismantled.
Belgian politicians want foreign nationals to be be tried in
absentia and will vote on the matter next week. They aim to change
the law before parliamentary elections in May.
“The Sharon case is one of many,” said Philippe Mahoux, a Socialist
senator involved with the initiative, adding that 26 cases remained
outstanding, including those against Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat.
“We want to sweep away impunity when it comes to genocide and war
crimes. That’s the idea and we have the firm intention of approving
the changes (to the law) before May,” he said yesterday.
Guy Verhoftstadt, the Bel gian prime minister, has thrown his weight
behind the plan, saying he has “no objections”, and the Belgian
media say that the calls for reform of the controversial law are
reaching critical mass.
The move is likely to give a new lease of life to the case against
Mr Sharon, who is accused of being responsible for the massacre of
more than 800 Palestinians in Lebanon in 1982 while he was Israel’s
minister of defence, because, it is claimed, he allowed militia
forces allied to Israel to run amok in the Sabra and Shatila refugee
Survivors of the atrocities began legal proceedings against him in
Belgium and were furious when the case was dismissed by three judges
in Brussels in June.
The Sharon case is still under appeal and remains live, so any
change in the law could see it reinstated.
The very fact that Belgian judges are even considering a case
against Mr Sharon has soured relations with Israel and many Belgian
politicians were relieved when the matter appeared to be at an end.
They will not welcome new proceedings.
However, Mr Sharon’s accusers face another, probably insurmountable
hurdle, which is likely to mean that even a trial in absentia will
never get off the ground.
Last February the international court of justice ruled that past and
present government leaders could not be tried for war crimes by a
foreign state, a ruling that is likely to spare Israel’s blushes.
The Belgians are keen to steer clear of cases which damage their
diplomatic ties with other countries.
Although the latest changes will allow trials in absentia and
authorise the Belgian courts to try cases which fall outside the
jurisdiction of the recently created international criminal court,
there will be a special clause designed to deter “legal tourists”.
A filtering mechanism will be created to weed out cases which are
purely political or propagandist in nature.
“We will put up a filter for those cases which are not linked to
Belgium … to allow for a speedier dismissal of purely political
complaints which don’t have anything to do with genocide or war
crimes and which are often lodged as propaganda,” said Vincent Van
Quickenborne, a Liberal senator.
A public prosecutor will vet such cases first and decide whether or
not they are genuine, although dismissals at such an early stage
could be appealed.