Belgium scraps war crimes law
Reuters | 7/30/03 | Bart Crols
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - U.S. President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair will be able to visit Brussels without fear of arrest after Belgium voted to scrap a controversial war crimes law under strong U.S. pressure.
A large majority of the lower house of parliament passed a bill late on Tuesday quashing the universal jurisdiction law, under which cases were launched against Bush, Blair and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
The law soured diplomatic relations between Brussels and Washington after complaints were filed against high-ranking U.S. officials on allegations of war crimes during the war in Iraq.
That prompted Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld last month to suspend funding of a planned new NATO headquarters building.
The senate has to approve the bill on Friday before it takes effect, but that is seen as a formality.
The 1993 law gave Belgian courts the power to try war crimes cases no matter where the alleged offences were committed and regardless of the victim's or perpetrator's nationality.
Courts have been flooded in the past two years with cases against a number of world leaders.
The decision to scotch the law followed several unsuccessful attempts to water it down.
Justice Minister Laurette Onkelinx told the lower house the law had fallen victim to "abusive, even absurd use".
Onkelinx said last week that some 29 cases were being processed by investigating magistrates and most would now likely be canned by the Supreme Court of Appeals.
Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said earlier this month 10 cases involving the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, plus two related to Guatemala and Chad, all involving Belgians, would continue.
The high-profile lawsuits against Bush, Blair, Rumsfeld and U.S. General Tommy Franks, the Iraq war commander, never got as far as an examining magistrate and will be automatically dumped.
"Today, Belgium certainly loses this vanguard role, but it remains one of the rare countries which has legislation penalising crimes against international humanitarian law," Onkelinx said.
Matters came to a head when Rumsfeld last month lambasted the law and warned that Washington would be reluctant to send officials to Brussels for NATO meetings.
U.S. officials denied reports they were contemplating moving the 19-nation alliance headquarters, but fear of the loss of jobs, money and prestige shook the Belgian establishment.
Planned new criminal law provisions will restrict the right to launch war crimes cases to Belgians or people resident in the country for at least three years at the time of the crime.
It was a stupid law!