- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 22, 2003

Belgian law explained

I read with attention David Davenport’s column, “Post-war lawsuit ambush” (Commentary, May 11), which deals with American sensitivity about the International Criminal Court. The Belgian angle caught my attention because it included some regrettable approximations and failed to mention that a Belgian law was recently modified.

The effort to make war crimes charges against Gen. Tommy Franks was done so on the basis of a 1993 Belgian law enacted to curb grave violations of international humanitarian law. The objective of this law was to implement the Geneva Convention relative to the protection of Civilian Persons in Time of War, signed in Geneva in 1949. The result of the 1993 law was a rather extensive implementation of the Geneva Conventions, as no link to Belgium was required for a complaint to be prima facie admissible — hence the appellation “universal competence law.”

After a large number of complaints were filed with the Belgian court system against world leaders, the Belgian Parliament decided to modify the law so that it would no longer be diverted from its original objectives and used for political purposes.

To avoid improper use of the law, certain safeguards were built into the “law of universal competence” by a new law implemented this April, which came into force May 7.

As a first safeguard, from now on, the ordinary procedure can only be put into action by an examining magistrate, if there exists at least one link with Belgium: for instance, if the victim or suspect is a Belgian citizen.

If none of these criteria is fulfilled, then only the federal prosecutor can demand an investigation. This second safeguard is even stronger, as the law stipulates that the federal prosecutor shall not proceed if the complaint is manifestly unfounded or if it appears that the case should be brought before a court of law in the country of which the suspect is a national.

Moreover, as a third safeguard, the minister of justice can, in any case, make the facts known to the country of the nationality of the suspect on condition that the legislation of that country consider such crimes as punishable offenses and guarantee a fair trial. In such cases, the Belgian supreme court rescinds the jurisdiction of the Belgian judicial authorities over the case.

When the Belgian Parliament inserted these three guarantees in the law, it provided tools enabling the Belgian judiciary to dismiss any spurious and frivolous litigation, while maintaining the generous intentions of Belgian law.

I hope that this explanation will clarify a number of elements about this extremely sensitive subject. On the one hand, I am aware that the column was not penned by The Washington Times’ editorial board. On the other hand, I feel impelled to write because I am sure you do not want your readers to be misled.

With the latest developments — the actual filing of a complaint against Gen. Franks this week — I imagine that you will find the precisions here more interesting.

FRANS VAN DAELE

Belgian ambassador

Washington

Reagan supported gas taxes

In light of Wednesday’s editorial “A Republican gas tax increase?” your readers might be interested to learn that a conservative Republican named Ronald Reagan was the last president to support an increase in the gasoline tax with the revenue dedicated exclusively to highway and transit improvements.

While Congress was debating a highway bill, Mr. Reagan — the greatest tax-cutter of our time — said in a November 1982 national radio address: “Good tax policy decrees that wherever possible a fee for a service should be assessed against those who directly benefit from that service. Our highways were built largely with such a user fee — the gasoline tax. I think it makes sense to follow that principle in restoring them to the condition we all want them to be in. … So, what we’re proposing is to add the equivalent of five cents per gallon to the existing federal highway user fee, the gas tax. … The cost to the average motorist will be small, but the benefit to our transportation system will be immense.”

Mr. Reagan proved that tax cuts can spur the economy, but he also knew that investment in our infrastructure is essential.

Fast-forward to 2003. Congress is once again debating a bill to fund the nation’s highway and transit systems over the next six years. Representatives Don Young, Alaska Republican, and James L. Oberstar, Minnesota Democrat, have announced a bold proposal to address growing traffic congestion and improve the safety and efficiency of America’s roads and transit systems. It calls for a one-time adjustment in the federal motor fuels user-fee excise of about a nickel per gallon and then tying the fee to the Consumer Price Index to maintain its purchasing power in the future. The investment levels in their plan are what the Bush administration’s Department of Transportation says are necessary to maintain current conditions and system performance of America’s transportation network. It’s a plan worth supporting.

Mr. Reagan proved that it’s OK to be a conservative and support an increase in the federal highway user fee for the right reasons. If it was right for Mr. Reagan, it also should be right for this Congress and administration.

MATTHEW JEANNERET

Vice president of communications

American Road & Transportation Builders Association

Washington

China and SARS

Sunday’s editorial “SARS and the Beijing Olympics” is right on target. The Chinese government’s inaction on notifying the world of the existence of a disease that has stricken more than 7,600 people and killed more than 580 represents a severe blow to the world’s public health system. That system is based on something called “disease surveillance.”

Disease surveillance represents a fundamental building block against threats of infectious disease, whether naturally occurring or deliberately caused. Timely surveillance enables rapid detection, investigation and early response, which is essential to limit casualties, manage public concerns and contain disease spread. Public health authorities worldwide must have the capacity to respond rapidly with a full range of tools. Such surveillance needs to be linked to emerging knowledge and technology, especially in the current context of bioweapon threats. Recent events demonstrate the need to coordinate surveillance activities, not only with public health officials, but with law enforcement and the intelligence community, which heretofore have remained separate.

The training of first-line responders and health providers in early disease detection is absolutely vital. In the case of the post-September 11 anthrax scare, astute clinicians were the ones who sounded the alert. The best plan of defense against biological threat requires trained epidemiologists who are alert to all possibilities and available at a moment’s notice throughout the world. It also is critical to have good data as rapidly as possible so that limited resources can be focused on the real problem.

There is general agreement within the public health community about the importance of disease surveillance. Clearly, the current SARS outbreak could have been minimized had Chinese officials been more forthcoming. However, their silence deprived public health officials of the tools necessary to stop this epidemic in its tracks.

DR. HAROLD M. KOENIG

Chairman and president

Center for Science-Based Public Policy

Annapolis

Mormons have options

I just read Chris Bolton’s letter about not being a good Mormon unless one is a libertarian (“Mormons and libertarianism,” Wednesday). Well, I must confess to being a Republican Mormon. Although I believe quite a bit of what libertarians believe, I draw the line at allowing unfettered access to abortion.

While Mr. Bolton analogizes Republicans’ restrictive abortion policy to a satanic rejection of free will, I ask him: What government would be any good at all if it did not have the best interest of the citizens as its primary concern? Aside from the moral and religious hesitations I have, I also believe that even a small innocent child in its mother’s womb is deserving of the protection of the law.

By the way, if Mr. Bolton thinks a Libertarian Party candidate can get elected to anything, he truly is an idealist. I believe that the best way to approach the libertarian ideal is to vote Republican and work from within.

JONATHAN TROSS

Alexandria


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