- The Washington Times - Friday, June 20, 2003

From combined dispatches

BRUSSELS — Belgium’s foreign minister yesterday became the latest target of the country’s controversial war crimes law, which has drawn international criticism.

A lawsuit accuses the minister of being an accomplice in human rights abuses in Nepal.

The New Flemish Alliance, a small opposition party, announced it had filed suit against leftist Foreign Minister Louis Michel for his role in authorizing a Belgian company to sell arms to Nepal, stating that the sale made the minister an accomplice in atrocities committed by the Nepalese armed forces.

“The law says every collaboration with these crimes is a crime itself and should be punished in the same way,” party spokesman Ben Weyts said. “The sentence for this crime is life in prison.”

Touted as a shining example of ethical foreign policy, the 1993 “universal competence” law allows individuals and groups from anywhere in the world to file suit in Belgian courts to hear war crimes cases regardless of where the crimes are said to have occurred.

Among those targeted by recent suits are President Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell and several other senior U.S. political and military figures, as well as British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Mr. Michel, an outspoken critic of the U.S.-led war in Iraq who learned of the suit while attending a summit of European Union leaders in Greece, denounced the filing as an abuse of the law.

“This is extremely irresponsible. It’s completely crazy and irrational,” Mr. Michel told reporters in Greece.

The U.S. government has threatened dire consequences for Belgium unless the law is revoked.

“This is something that we think is putting our leaders at risk,” State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said. “The law doesn’t work. We think it should be repealed. And that’s our view.

“It’s becoming difficult, I think, for our leaders to travel freely to Belgium,” he added.

Mr. Rumsfeld pointedly warned last week that NATO’s headquarters may have to be moved out of Brussels because of the legal dangers posed by complaints against U.S. officials under the law.

The international outcry against the law is sparking criticism at home.

The Belgian newspaper Le Soir warned yesterday that, “Belgium doesn’t have the slightest chance of winning the arm-wrestle with Washington.”

Belgium, the paper continued, was “alone against the world.”

Facing international pressure, Belgium has twice amended the law to prevent politically motivated or frivolous cases.

Washington is pushing for further changes in the law to prevent cases against Americans from arising in the first place.

“The law that allowed the filing of these cases, as we’ve said before, is indefensible,” said Mr. Reeker. “And these cases demonstrate that even with the recent amendments, the law does not work, and we believe should be repealed.”

Belgium’s relations with Israel also have been severely damaged by a complaint against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Belgium’s highest court ruled in February that Mr. Sharon can be prosecuted after he leaves office for war crimes arising from massacres at two Palestinian refugee camps in Beirut in 1982.

Mr. Michel said the war crimes charge against him “will ridicule Belgium on the world stage. … I’m accusing [the New Flemish Alliance] of blackening our name.”

The Belgian government’s decision last year to authorize the sale of 5,500 automatic rifles to the Nepalese government drew widespread criticism, sparked a government crisis and led to the resignation of one leading minister.

The 10-year-old legislation gives Belgian courts the right to judge anyone accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide, regardless of where the crime took place.

Mr. Michel denied his government has any plans to annul the law. But it has scaled back some of the law’s more drastic provisions by allowing cases to be referred back to a defendant’s own country under certain circumstances.

The Belgian cabinet did that this week with the lawsuits filed by unidentified plaintiffs against Mr. Bush, Mr. Blair and six other high-ranking officials.

The move means the lawsuits have no chance of reaching a court. Nevertheless, they are likely to worsen tensions between Washington and Brussels.

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