Amid the furore that followed a spate of legal cases brought against prominent Western figures since the end of the Iraq war, the Belgian government has decided to water down its controversial war crimes law.
Belgian Prime Minister Verhofstadt insists the new changes have nothing to do with U.S. pressure
With international pressure growing, the Belgian government announced Sunday it would be amending its controversial war crimes law for the second time this year, limiting its application to citizens and residents of Belgium.
Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt however is denying charges his government has backed down in the face of intense U.S. criticism of the law. The United States recently threatened to force NATO's headquarters out of Brussels with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld vowing to freeze American funding for the alliance's new €303.4 million ($352 million) headquarters if the law was not revoked.
War crimes accusations
The international row between Belgium and the United States has been escalating over the last few weeks since the end of the Iraq war, with lawsuits brought by independent parties against President George W. Bush, Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and the U.S. commander of Operation Iraqi Freedom, General Tommy Franks.
The charges, for alleged war abuses in Iraq, have infuriated the Americans and they have voiced their anger in the loudest possible terms, insisting that the law should be abandoned. But the Belgians maintain that the latest changes to the law were not signs that the government was bowing to the Bush administration.
"It's not American pressure. If anything, that would have the opposite effect," Verhofstadt said. "We wanted to find a solution that allows us to keep the law."
It seems that a contributing factor to the new amendments was an action brought by a local opposition party in Belgium against Foreign Minister Luis Michel, citing his involvement in an arms deal to Nepal. The legislation was hurriedly prepared soon after.
Law used by the politically motivated
The law was first used in war crimes cases in Rwanda.
As it stands, the unique 1993 law allows charges to be brought to a Belgian court regardless of where the war crimes took place. First applied against Rwandans implicated in the 1994 genocide in the African country, the law has since been used by human rights campaigners, political groups and disgruntled individuals to file complaints against a score of international figures.
The highest profile case to date under the original law was an action brought against Israeli leader Ariel Sharon by survivors of a 1982 massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon by Lebanese Christian militiamen. The case provoked outrage in Israel and has been suspended given Sharon's immunity.
But even before Rumsfeld's threat to boycott all NATO meetings on June 12, the Belgian government had introduced a first set of changes to the legislation to allow the authorities to block cases brought against citizens from countries judged to have fair legal systems.
Amendments limit law to Belgians
The latest amendments would reduce the law's global reach, limiting the power of Belgian courts to cases with a direct link to the country, such as when victims or suspects are Belgian citizens or residents. It is intended to make it harder for foreigners to initiate proceedings under the legislation.
Thumbs up from Belgium's Foreign Minister Louis Michel.
It was unclear whether the changes had placated Washington, as there was no official comment from the White House. Belgian officials are confident, however, that the new changes should satisfy U.S. concerns. Foreign Minister Michel said the changes would end "rash and annoying complaints that wrongly target figures from partner countries."
The new amendments are likely to be approved by parliament, where the governing Liberal and Socialist parties have a majority and the main opposition party has proposed similar changes.