Belgium’s war crimes law under threat

BBC World | Europe Wednesday, 26 March, 2003, 00:31 GMT

Belgium rethinks war crimes law

Belgium’s governing parties are scrambling to amend a controversial law
which some fear could be used in a war crimes lawsuit against US President
George W Bush.

The law allows Belgian courts to pass judgment on charges of war crimes,
crimes against humanity and genocide, regardless of where the alleged acts
took place or the nationality of the accused.

Critics have warned that a case against President Bush could be filed under
the law, known as universal competence, and Belgium’s role as host to
international institutions could be threatened.

“I expect there to be, any day, a suit against President Bush in Belgium,” said
Herman De Croo, president of the lower house of parliament.

Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt hosted intense negotiations among political
leaders from his coalition to discuss the threat, parliamentary sources said.

US Secretary of State Colin Powell warned last week that Belgium’s status as
an international hub may be jeopardised by the legislation, which applies to
officials once they leave office.

“It’s a serious problem,” said Mr Powell, after he was named last week in a
lawsuit for alleged crimes during the 1991 Gulf War, along with former
President George Bush Snr and current Vice President Dick Cheney.

The lawsuit was filed by seven Iraqi families over the bombing of a civilian
shelter in Baghdad that killed 403 people.

Mr Powell served as the head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff and Cheney as
defence secretary during the 1991 Gulf War.

Some 30 current or former political leaders are facing action under the law,
including Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
and Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Relations are already tense between the United States and Belgium, which
has been a fierce critic of the war on Iraq and helped spark an unprecedented
crisis at Nato last month.

Brussels regional leader Francois-Xavier de Donnea warned that action
taken under the universal competence law risked calling into question the
role of city as the seat of international institutions.

Compromise proposal

Discussion of the law comes only a week before Belgium’s parliament is due
to be dissolved before legislative elections scheduled for 18 May.

According to parliamentary sources, the parties in the ruling coalition are
divided over the extent of amendments to the law.

Mr Verhofstadt’s Liberals, backed by Flemish-speaking Socialists, have
proposed a “diplomatic filter”.

This would allow the government to send any cases to the country where the
alleged crimes took place, providing it is democratic.

Francophone socialists and ecologists fear that the law would be made
toothless if overly radical amendments are allowed.

Mr Powell said last week that Belgium should take the warnings about the law
seriously - warnings that are all the more topical after the start of a war
critics claim is illegal.