Belgium’s “Universal Competence” Law Finally Dies

Belgium finally has that new government, after a month of negotiations between the various political parties following the general election of mid-May. And one of its first acts has been to put forward legislation which would replace the “law of universal competence” about which so much has been written in these web-pages – a somewhat extraordinary law which, back during its strapping youth, could be used by anyone, from anywhere, to bring suit in a Belgian court against anyone, from anywhere, for alleged genocide, violations of human rights, and that sort of thing. While it lasted, it provided for great political theater – with personages such as Ariel Sharon and Donald Rumsfeld wondering whether it was safe for them to even set foot on Belgian soil, and Belgium’s hosting of NATO headquarters thrown into doubt – but it has finally met its end – at least so it seems.

About that new Belgian governing coalition, La Derniere Heure reports (in an article that also lists all the new ministers, for those interested) that although the new government will be headed just like the last one was by Guy Verhofstad, this new one will be the “violet” government whereas the last was called “arch-into-the-sky” (arc-en-ciel). These names are more than mere whimsy, as they reflect the political make-up and nature of the given government. For example, the Netherlands had its own “violet” government (in Dutch, paars) in the seven years to 2002, and that paars label was derived from its composition out of a combination of left-wing labor (in the form of the PvdA, traditional color red) and the conservative VVD (traditional color blue) – plus the smaller party D66, but we can neglect that here unless you want to add their traditional yellow color into the mix. It might be an interesting assignment – for when I’m back behind my own computer, say, in a few weeks’ time – to look into why the new Belgian government is also called paars/violet, and especially why the last government was called “arch-into-the-sky.”

In point of fact, LDH’s sister French-language newspaper in Belgium, La Libre Belgique, claims that doing away with this loi de compétence universelle was in fact the very first thing that the new Belgian cabinet attended to, during last Saturday night (12 July), right after King Albert II had had his audience with Verhofstad to make the inauguration of his new government official. In an article entitled La mort de la compétence universelle (“The Death of Universal Competence”) this paper presents the details. The new law is scheduled to be approved next Saturday (19 July) for presentation to the legislature, with passage expected before the legislature breaks for the summer on 1 August, and its effect will be essentially to place Belgian law, when it comes to the prosecution of genocide or other crimes against humanity, back in the pack where the law of most of its European neighbors stands. Criminal complaints for these offenses will only able to be placed if either the accused or the victim is Belgian or resident in Belgium; and in the latter case the initiation of an investigation will not be automatic, but subject instead to the decision of the federal prosecutor as to whether to go ahead. Plus, the new law will be subordinate to the various international agreements to which Belgium is party which confer immunity to the officials of foreign governments. What this also means is that all pending cases under the old law will be canceled, save three which clearly have to do with Belgian perpetrators or victims – having to do with Rwanda, Chad, and Guatemala. (An anonymous lawyer is also quoted in the Libre Belgique article as maintaining that a pending case against Fidel Castro could also go ahead, but it is hard to understand why. Maybe it involved a Belgian victim.)

The Israeli government has already sent its congratulations to the new Belgian government for this action. Amnesty International has already expressed its regret. And, confusingly, La Derniere Heure covered this with an article entitled La loi de compétence universelle a vécu – “The Law of Universal Competence Has Lived.” I guess what they mean is that it did live, but is now dead; the clear consensus is that the new Belgian government’s actions constitute a final, long-desired abrogation of the law which has been watered down twice since its original passage in 1993 in response to complaints from Belgium’s allies.

Still, US officials will keep their cards close to their vests until they see what new law finally comes out in the end. De Tijd reports State Department spokesman Richard Boucher as saying that, while the US government “appreciates” the intentions of the Belgians to replace the old law of universal competence with a new one, “we will only give commentary on the matter when we have studied in detail the proposed draft law.”

UPDATE: In French arc-en-ciel means “rainbow,” so that’s the Belgian “rainbow coalition”! Of course!

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