“Law of Universal Incompetence”?

Remember that “genocide law” in Belgium (formally known in English as the “law of universal competence,” and which EuroSavant first commented upon a few weeks ago here)? The one that allows anyone, from anywhere, to take to court in Belgium anyone, from anywhere, whom they wish to accuse of committing violations of human rights and/or of the laws of war? It has by no means gone away; indeed, lately Belgian-American tensions have risen to new highs.

Back in May it was General Tommy Franks who was being indicted before a Belgian court for alleged “war crimes” during the Iraq invasion. I mentioned then that the Belgian parliament had recently modified the law to give the government the option simply to pass the case on to the respective national government involved, and this they did with the Franks accusation. (And I’m sure the American Department of Justice responded with a big “Why, thanks!”) Back then we also had US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Richard Myers visiting Belgium to warn that, even with that modification, the US government was not of a mind to put up with this sort of thing for long.

Now, according to the leading Dutch newspaper NRC Handelsblad, it’s George W. Bush and Tony Blair (and other high officials of the Bush administration) against whom criminal complaints have been served in a Brussels court over alleged war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yes, the Belgian government immediately passed these on to the American and British governments. But this time it is Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (one of those named in the criminal complaints) in the role of American bearer of bad tidings. While attending a NATO conference in Belgium last week, according to Expatica.com (in English), he pointed out that “It does not make sense to have meetings at Brussels HQ if military and civil officials can no longer enter the country without the risk of being arrested.” He further threatened to stop American funds going towards the building of further NATO facilities in Brussels and to ban American officials from attending NATO meetings generally. What Rumsfeld explicitly demands is nothing less than the abolition of this “law of universal competence” – something the American government in general wants at least implicitly.

The Belgium government has tried to address this problem by having further amendments to the genocide law passed in the legislature this past week, which extend diplomatic immunity to officials coming to Belgium for meetings of international organizations. That takes care of that, they now say; but for the American government the law, even as amended, remains “indefensible” (in the words of spokesman for the American embassy in Brussels, Joe MacManus, reported in De Standaard). Meanwhile, the dispute is hitting Belgians increasingly in their pocketbooks, reports Het Nieuwsblad, because the American military is increasingly purposefully avoiding Belgian facilities for such things as refueling airplanes (re-directing them to Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport instead), and American shippers are shunning Belgian ports for Rotterdam and Hamburg. The final straw might be that Belgian foreign minister Louis Michel himself was the target of another recent complaint under this “law of universal competence”; he is said to be guilty of war crimes because of a recent shipment that he approved of 5,500 machine-guns to Nepal, where they are being used to suppress Maoist rebels. This complaint was brought by the Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (yes, the “New-Flemish Alliance” – you see that Flemish is easy!), a small, nationalistic, even lunatic-fringe party that advocates independence for Flanders, the northern half of Belgium. According to the NRC article, they did it simply to embarras Michel and make a parody out of the genocide law. Interviewed on VRT (Flemish Radio), as reported by the French-language Belgian newspaper La Libre Belgique, Michel declared that he was “guilty of nothing. I find that all this is a bit ridiculous and naturally makes no sense and has no importance.”

Bizarrely, those far-right Flemings have rendered America a service by providing a leading Belgian government figure a taste for himself of the medicine that a number of prominent Americans (going back to George H.W. Bush, as well as figures such as Ariel Sharon and Fidel Castro) have had to swallow. Granted, any such complaints can be swiftly disposed of as the Belgian government passes them on to the government concerned. (By the way, as if there wasn’t enough controversy, the Belgian Raad van State, which can be considered as the “Belgian Supreme Court,” has held that that “passing-on” feature is unconstitutional under Belgian law, since it is an instance of the Executive usurping the functions of the Judiciary, reports the Dutch NRC Handelsblad.) But at bottom, it’s clear that this law has merely provided disgruntled people everywhere the opportunity to bring frivolous, politically-motivated lawsuits. The upshot has been a lot of bad publicity, a lot of tension created between Belgium and the governments of the various target figures – and, in general, a lot of laughable mess. It’s true that this ordinance has now been on the Belgian lawbooks for ten years, and that in some sense the current Belgian government would “lose face” by repealing it entirely, but they should strongly consider doing that nonetheless.

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