Swamped by a spate of lawsuits against US and other world leaders, Belgium is to limit a war-crimes law that had angered Washington and prompted warnings that NATO might be unable to meet in the Belgian capital if foreign delegates risked arrest.
The move hands the Bush administration a victory in its campaign against a trend in international law to give courts worldwide jurisdiction over the worst human rights violations, wherever they occur.
"Belgium has clearly capitulated to US pressure. This does harm to the universality of universal justice and it's a clear setback," says Reed Brody, advocacy director of Human Rights Watch in New York.
US officials had argued that they could be subjected to frivolous and politically motivated suits under the law, and liable to arrest whenever they came to Belgium for meetings at NATO and other international organizations. They dismissed Belgian claims that such officials are given ironclad immunity under a number of existing conventions.
Only cases with Belgian links
The incoming Belgian government will amend the country's "universal jurisdiction" law to cover only cases with a clear link to Belgium, prime minister Guy Verhofstadt announced on Sunday.
Under the existing law, which allows Belgian courts to try war crimes and crimes against humanity regardless of where the alleged crimes were committed or the whereabouts of the perpetrator, plaintiffs have recently filed complaints against President Bush, Secretary of State Colin Powell and US General Tommy Franks, as well as British Prime Minister Tony Blair.
"Certain people and certain organizations, pursuing their own political agenda, systematically use this law in an abusive manner," Mr. Verhofstadt told reporters Sunday. "Modifying this law will make it impossible to abuse this law."
Belgium's law has attracted particular attention because of its peculiarity allowing plaintiffs to lodge war-crimes and crimes- against-humanity cases directly, with no decision by a prosecutor, and because cases can go forward even against defendants who are not present.
That meant, complains lawyer Michele Hirsch, that "Belgium became the virtual judge of the world.
"We need to keep the universal jurisdiction law," she says, "but in a way that we can render effective justice, not virtual justice.
"We need universal justice" to ensure that war criminals cannot escape punishment by fleeing to another country, adds Ms. Hirsch, who represented Rwandan genocide victims in a 2001 case before the Belgian court, and later represented Israel in a case brought against Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. "But Belgium cannot be competent to try all cases."
Justice or foreign policy?
The way the law was used, says Prof. Pierre d'Argent, an outspoken critic of the current law who teaches at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, also meant that "it was not the government that was making foreign policy, but independent judges. By issuing warrants they began to do foreign policy."
Belgium's relations with Israel were soured after a case was brought against Mr. Sharon for his alleged role in the Sabra and Shatila massacres of Palestinian refugees in Beirut during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, when Sharon was defense …