EuroSavant is back, and so back on the lookout for interesting items out of the European news that you won’t find reported in the Western Hemisphere. Before embarking again on an examination of some larger theme – that “old favorite” of US-European diplomatic relations looks like it may be a good candidate to be taken up again, given Colin Powell’s arrival tonight in Berlin – here’s a tidbit out of Belgium, where a criminal complaint has been filed in a Brussels federal court against War in Iraq commanding general Tommy Franks for having permitted war crimes to be committed by soldiers under his command in the recent conflict.
“Belgium?” you may ask – “Why Belgium?” Namely because of the “law of universal competence” which that country’s legislature passed in 1993, which permits Belgian courts to try cases of the violation of international law, no matter what the nationality of the defendants or alleged victims. Previously Ariel Sharon has been the target of a similar complaint and has had to take care not to engage in diplomatic travels which might make him subject to Belgian authorities, who could theoretically arrest him and turn him in to their criminal justice system. But George H.W. Bush and Colin Powell have also been, as they were accused last March in a similar Belgian complaint of war crimes in connection with the bombardment of Iraq during the first Gulf War.
Strangely, this affair is covered in the Belgian French-language press but not in the Dutch-language. The most detailed treatment is to be found in La Libre Belgique, with the sub-headline Beau casse-tête en perspective pour notre pays (which I freely translate as “And we’re getting ourselves into another mess again!”). There are 19 plaintiffs in this case: seventeen Iraqis (still resident in Iraq) and two Jordanians, namely the father and mother of Tarek Ayoub, the correspondent for Al-Jazeera television killed by American forces on 8 April. They are represented by a Belgian lawyer, and indict not only General Franks but also Marine lieutenant colonel Brian MacCoy, who is alleged to have approved the targeting of ambulances because of fears that they were being used by Iraqi forces to hide soldiers, arms, and ammunition.
Belgium’s La Dernière Heure also covers the story, with an interesting appendix: FEB: «Cela ne nous aide pas». That is, the FEB says (that’s the Fédération belge des entreprises, or basically the Belgian Chamber of Commerce) that this criminal complaint isn’t going to help its members much, as it will sour commercial relations with American customers that are bad enough as they are. Anti-French product boycotts have already popped up in the US; with this sort of action, could anti-Belgian boycotts be far behind?
Naturally, this law has proven to be something of an enormous embarrassment for the Belgian government, especially in its relations with the United States. Just last month the parliament modified it by authorizing the government, under certain conditions, when faced with criminal complaints under the “law of universal competence,” to simply refer the matter to the government corresponding to the accused’s nationality. This the Belgian Ministry of Justice can thus do in the case of General Franks. But in the meantime US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers paid a recent visit, where he warned that such things could have “an enormous impact” – on Belgian-US relations in general, and on where NATO chooses to base its headquarters in particular. Right now, NATO is based in the Belgian cities of Brussels and Mons.
There are many around the world who cannot understand what objections the United States could possible have to placing its citizens (in particular, members of its military) under the jurisdiction of the new International Criminal Court. This quirk of Belgian law, should they care to take the effort to look at it closely, might help them to understand this attitude better. But while legal constructions such as this “law of universal competence” potentially make individual countries forbidden territory for fear of arrest, the world-wide effect of the International Criminal Court makes everywhere but the United States forbidden territory for those American citizens accused of acts which ultimately are fit to be tried only in the country of their citizenship.