Belgium Backs Off

There goes another one of my favorite weblog-entry subjects! The Belgian government is now in the process of modifying its infamous “genocide law” (formally known as “law of universal competence” – the law that used to allow criminal complaints from anyone, from anywhere, against anyone, from anywhere, whom they could charge with crimes against humanity) so that it more-or-less conforms to the sort of legislation most other countries have for the prosecution against those sorts of serious crimes. Crucially, with the changes that are now being added either the accuser or the accused must be of Belgian nationality or must have at least lived in Belgium for three years. (EuroSavant recently had the occasion to discuss this law, and the displeasure it was prompting among American officials, here.)

OK, you say, so an activist Belgian civilian goes ahead anyway and files a complaint against, say, Ariel Sharon, summoning him to court in Belgium to answer charges of crimes-against-humanity against the Palestinians. No, the other condition that is been added is that the accused must be the citizen of a land which is judged (by a Belgian judge, at the time of the processing of the complaint) to lack the rule of law and thus unable to do justice itself. According to the Gazet van Antwerpen, Belgian “formateur” Guy Verhofstadt emphasized that that second provision now makes complaints against Israeli or American citizens impossible. (Verhofstadt is “formateur,” not prime minister, because Belgium recently had general elections and the next government is still being formed. His party did rather well in the elections, though, so he will soon again be prime minister, and that also explains his influence in getting this latest change to the genocide law passed through parliament.)

Interestingly, according to the leading Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, Verhofstadt also maintained that he isn’t getting the law changed “because the Americans have applied pressure,” but “because it has been so misused.” Past Belgian prime minister Jean-Luc Dehaene, for his part, would rather have the “law of universal competence” abolished entirely, as reported in a separate article in Gazet van Antwerpen; appearing in a radio or TV program (I don’t know which) called “Villa Politica,” he gave expression to his own doubt as to whether a small country such a Belgium could really offer the world much in the way of political morality – especially one that aspires to be the European Union’s headquarters. And former NATO general secretary Willy Claes, according to De Standaard, applauded the government’s decision. He was truly afraid that Belgium would lose NATO headquarters. On the other hand, another article in De Standaard reports that leading figures out of the Flemish Green Party, which is poised to enter the governing coalition (and which goes under the confusing name “Agalev”), have already criticized Verhofstadt for “genuflecting to President Bush.”

Note that this is all a matter of further changes to the “law of universal competence,” not its abolition. In fact, my reading of the Belgian press gives me the impression that war-crimes complaints can still be made and passed on to the respective governments under certain conditions – i.e. in those cases we would have the same situation as has prevailed since April, which is unacceptable to the American government due to the unfavorable publicity – namely when the Belgian judge who now functions as the “gate-keeper” decides that this is possible. So do these new changes make the genocide law finally acceptable to the American government?

By the way, I may still have the chance to comment further on this law yet. Note that the changes are being made to the law, but have not yet been made. There are two problems here: 1) The Belgian parliament, both lower house (Kamer) and the Senate are busy with more important things, like negotiating over forming that new government; and 2) They are all about to go off on summer recess, anyway. This will likely mean that the old law, as amended only in April (when, you’ll recall, it was changed so that the government could simply pass any such criminal complaints on to the governments concerned), will be in force for a while, until legislators return from their summer vacations and get around to addressing it.

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