Lawyers representing Sabra and Shatila suvivors decry Belgium’s proposal to scrap Universal Jurisdiction law

The Belgian government has decided to abandon the law on universal jurisdiction. Henceforth, jurisdiction shall be limited to only those cases involving Belgian victims, Belgian perpetrators, or perpetrators living on Belgian soil. Fierce pressure from the United States of America and Israel, combined with strategic and legal errors by the Belgian authorities concerning a number of recent attempted cases, ultimately forced the government to take this huge step backwards.

If the intentions of the government become law, it will of course greatly affect the pending investigation of the Sabra and Shatila massacre. The draft bill that will be proposed to parliament in fact contains a transitory rule for such pending cases, specifying that only those cases involving Belgian nationals at the time of the initiation of the case or suspects yet arrested will be pursued further.

The draft bill not only constitutes a huge step backwards with respect to the defence of human rights and international humanitarian law, but it also discriminates against victims of international crimes in comparison with victims of ordinary crimes. According to Belgium’s criminal code, a Belgian victim can file a complaint for felonies committed abroad by a foreigner as soon as the perpetrator sets foot on Belgian soil. The draft bill further limits this possibility. We appeal to all parliamentarians in Belgium not to accept this proposal.

In any case, we consider it inadmissible that a case such as ours, in which the Belgian Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals had already, in a final decision, decided to advance to the stage of investigation, could be cancelled by a government decision and a subsequent modification of the law. This not only violates the principles of separation of powers within the state, but also violates the rights of victims to a fair trial and effective legal remedies, as guaranteed by the European Convention on the Protection of Human Rights. Depending on the outcome of the actual legislative procedure, we are considering seeking remedies for these violations before the proper courts.

The Belgian government’s proposal to greatly limit the law is also a blow for all the victims and survivors of the 1982 massacre at Sabra and Shatila. After having been welcomed by the Belgian state to file for an investigation that seemed impossible for years, that same state now turns its back on them and their overdue search for justice, for fear of economic sanctions. After having been invited to re-live the dramatic events of the massacre, the proposal about to be passed by Belgium’s parliament irresponsibly and cruelly crushes their hope of finally overcoming two decades of emotional stress and difficulties.

Luc Walleyn, Michael Verhaeghe, Chibli Mallat
Brussels and Beirut