Skip to main content /WORLD /WORLD

Q&A: Belgium's unique law

BRUSSELS, Belgium -- A Belgian appeals court has ruled that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon will not have to face trial in Belgium for alleged war crimes.

The case has put the spotlight on a Belgian law that allows its courts to try alleged war criminals of any nationality for offences committed anywhere in the world.

Court: Sharon case inadmissible 

Its highest profile case was the conviction of two Rwandan nuns for their part in the 1994 genocide of their compatriots.

CNN examines the impact of the law on international justice.

Q When was the law introduced?

A It came about in 1993 and the investigation into the Rwandan nuns began shortly afterwards and continued until the trial last year.

Complaints have been made against various people under the law. The Rwandan trial was the first and its showcase. A complaint had was also made against a United Nation's general for his alleged conduct in Rwanda but it was ruled unacceptable.

Belgium wanted to bring charges against Chile's former leader General Augusto Pinochet at the same time he was placed under house arrest in Britain during a visit to the country in October 1998. He was released in March 2000.

Q What does the law cover?

A Genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Q Why was it introduced, and who, or what was the impetus?

A It was introduced as part of the international effort to establish a worldwide international criminal tribunal and amended in 1999 to include possible charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Many human rights lawyers and senators closely involved in the Belgian parliament were responsible for pushing the government to introduce it.

Q How much power does the law have?

A In theory, nobody is beyond a complaint being made. But they are beyond investigation if a crime has not been committed.

Initial investigation procedures take about a week. The next step is for a fuller investigation, which can last for several months. As a result of that it is decided whether to go for prosecution or not.

Q Could the law mean conflicting interests with the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague?

A No, it is not connected with the Hague. That tribunal was set up by the United Nations Security Council. It deals with crimes allegedly committed in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The Hague is a specific tribunal. Belgium has a national law empowering its courts to act outside its borders.

Q Is the law being reviewed?

A Belgium has been looking to make further changes to the law. One possible change could be to give temporary immunity for a head of state who is still in power.

Another possible modification is that a panel could be responsible for issuing any international arrest warrants rather than the current situation where the decision is up to only one magistrate.




Back to the top