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Belgium Changes  Controversial War Crimes Law - 2003-08-01

The Belgian parliament has enacted legislation to change a controversial war crimes law under which cases were filed against President Bush and many other world leaders.

The Senate passed the measure Friday, following approval by the lower House earlier in the week. Under the new legislation the jurisdiction of Belgian courts is limited to cases involving long-term Belgian citizens or residents, who were victims or suspects at the time of an alleged crime. The changes also ensure immunity for world leaders and officials who visit Belgium.

The original law gave Belgian courts the power of universal jurisdiction, to try war crimes cases, no matter where the acts were allegedly committed, and no matter what the nationality of those involved. The law angered Washington when lawsuits were filed against President Bush and other senior U.S. officials accusing them of war crimes in Iraq.

Subsequently, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Washington would be reluctant to send American officials to NATO meetings in Brussels, and that the United States opposed further spending on a new NATO headquarters in Belgium.

The original law provoked a number of controversies. One prominent case against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was thrown out by the Belgian Supreme Court earlier this year. Even Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel was affected, when an opposition party filed a complaint against him, accusing him of illegally authorizing arms shipments to Nepal.

Mr. Michel told the Senate Friday that the noble cause that prompted the parliament to adopt the law, was abused and manipulated for political ends. He said relations have been damaged with nations that Belgium traditionally has excellent ties with.

Critics say the old law, originally passed in 1993, made Belgium somewhat of a joke on the world stage. The law was first applied to prosecute two Rwandan nuns on genocide charges in 2001. This prompted a series of other lawsuits against a number of world figures.