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Published: Thursday, 4/10/2003

A little Belgian waffle

Everyone looks for a unique take on self-definition, and, in 1993, so did Belgium, the tiny European nation of 11,781 square miles and about 10 million people that is home to NATO and hosts countless international meetings.

But Belgium's effort to distinguish itself in the geopolitical world has proven to be self-defeating, so much so that a commentary in a local paper has suggested it rename itself “Absurdistan.”

All this is thanks to a law the Belgian Parliament passed to make itself a bastion of compassionate justice for victims of the bloody civil war in Rwanda, a country in which it once had a colonial interest.

The law gives Belgium universal jurisdiction over war crimes, even those in which neither it nor its nationals have an interest, let alone a loss. And that's a problem for it and the rest of the world.

Reaching out for criminals beyond one's borders isn't new. Usually there's a connection. Israel had laws that let it kidnap, transport, try, and execute the Nazi executioner of Jews, Adolf Eichmann, in 1961. Former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was imprisoned in Britain until a court there decided he wouldn't be turned over to a Spanish magistrate, who would have done to him what his own country chose not to do.

In the past few years the world's wounded, with no standing anywhere else, have trod the road to Belgium seeking justice. Lebanese Palestinians brought charges against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Iraqi Kurds went after Saddam Hussein, Cubans in exile filed on Castro, and Israelis victimized by suicide bombers sought redress from Yasser Arafat.

Then, last month, Iraqi families sued the first President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf for war crimes in connection with the bombing of a civilian shelter that killed 403 people in Baghdad during the firstPersian Gulf war - an unintentional act that left many bereaved and angry.

Enough, said Secretary of State Powell, threatening an end to international conventions and a NATO super-presence. What nation would send emissaries to a convention in a place where they risked arrest for alleged war crimes?

Belgium's parliament listened. It has rewritten its law, inserting what it calls filters, which will let the government dismiss the case against Mr. Bush and any case where the accused comes from a democratic country.

The situation remains potentially sticky. There's something to be said about giving aggrieved people no one else will listen to a chance at justice. But the rules of international affairs are for the most part practical, not moral or necessarily fair.

Belgium has wisely seen the light.



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