Universal Jurisdiction in Belgium: The Trial Continues

The trial continues

Israelis have scoffed at Prime Minister Ariel Sharon�s war crimes trial in Belgium, but, despite it all, the legal process continues. Indeed, on Tuesday it received a valuable shot in the arm.
Belgium�s prime minister, Guy Verhofstadt, declared that he would not oppose a broadening of his country�s war crimes law to reconfirm its �universal jurisdiction.� Last June, universal jurisdiction was dealt a blow when an appeals court concluded that only suspects living in Belgium could be pursued for war crimes perpetrated outside its borders.
A new law aims to strike this interpretation down and allow Belgian courts to pursue suspects residing abroad. It was backed by all parties in the Senate, approved by the state council, and endorsed by a majority of senators in its first reading. Two more readings will take place next week, and the law will reportedly be adopted. Verhofstadt�s statement confirmed in which direction the wind was blowing.
Given Sharon�s domestic difficulties and the distinct possibility that any new right-wing government he forms after Israel�s elections will be short-lived, the prime minister may soon find himself out of power. This would dissolve another argument opponents of the war crimes law have held up, namely that Belgium should not be pursuing a foreign head of government.
Much has changed since lawyers representing the families of those killed at Sabra and Shatila in 1982 took Sharon and others to court. What was initially an effort to profit from Belgian law to remind people of Sharon�s misdeeds, has turned into a bona fide legal case with an outside chance of leading to an investigation into his possible guilt.
The Senate�s reaffirmation of universal jurisdiction was political. Leftist senators who have little sympathy for Israel�s treatment of the Palestinians, among other beefs, backed expansion of the war crimes law. It�s ironic how the tables were turned on Sharon, since he and his defenders were ardently political in their efforts to derail the trial.
In 2001, for example, Sharon remarked: �By attacking me personally (the lawyers representing Palestinian families) are looking to attack Israel and the Jewish people.� Left unsaid was that it was an Israeli commission of inquiry, the Kahan commission, that accused him in February 1983 of �personal responsibility� for the Sabra and Shatila killings. Its conclusions were directed neither against Israel nor the Jewish people.
Few have bothered to read the commission�s report, preferring to cite its alleged conclusion that Sharon bore �indirect responsibility� for the massacre. In fact the report does not say that at all; it merely delimits who executed the victims and who stood back and watched.
To ensure readers wouldn�t misunderstand, the commission added this devastating broadside: �When we are dealing with the issue of indirect responsibility, it should also not be forgotten that the Jews in various lands of exile � suffered greatly by pogroms perpetrated by various hooligans � The Jewish public�s stand has always been that the responsibility for such deeds falls not only on those who rioted and committed the atrocities, but also on those who were responsible for safety and public order, who could have prevented the disturbances and did not fulfill their obligations in this respect.�
In that context, Sharon�s cowardly, underhanded association of the Belgian trial with anti-Semitism was not only shameful, it was an unconscious effort to undercut the Kahan�s commission�s view that if the fate of the Jewish people had to be dredged up at all in the Sabra and Shatila case, it would serve not to exonerate Sharon, but to incriminate him.
It is a reality of international relations that countries are increasingly disregarding sovereignty to pursue foreign officials for war crimes. Among those responsible for this state of affairs is the United States. That�s why Sharon is a victim of Saddam Hussein. Amid talk of putting the Iraqi leader on trial, it was perhaps inevitable that Belgian senators would apply the same logic to, among others, Israel�s prime minister.
Sharon and much of the Israeli public will continue to regard the trial in Belgium as politically motivated. If so, they will have missed the point: A glance at the Kahan report will show Israelis that their prime minister still has much explaining to do. When in doubt, it�s best to establish the truth. If Sharon is innocent, then why so heartily scorn a trial that might vindicate him?
And if he�s guilty, then surely the Israelis don�t want a war criminal leading them, particularly one whose dissembling has been plain in recent weeks, casting doubt on his sincerity when it comes to telling the truth about Sabra and Shatila.

Michael Young writes a regular column for THE DAILY STAR