Belgian War Crimes Law Threatens NATO Meetings

By Mike Wendling | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

London ( - U.S. funding for new NATO buildings may be withdrawn because of a law that permits foreigners to be tried for war crimes in Belgian courts, no matter where the alleged acts are committed.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said Thursday that he would oppose money for a new headquarters in Brussels until U.S. officials could be certain that they could travel to the country without fear of prosecution.

"Belgium has turned its legal system into a platform for divisive politicized lawsuits against her NATO allies," Rumsfeld told reporters at a press conference following a meeting of alliance defense ministers.

"We will have to seriously consider whether we can allow our civilian and military officials to come to Belgium," he said. "Until the status is resolved, we will have to oppose all further spending for a NATO headquarters in Brussels until we know with certainty Belgium intends to be a hospitable place."

"It is perfectly possible to meet elsewhere," he said. "Belgium appears not to respect the sovereignty of other countries."

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is in the early stages of constructing a new headquarters that is scheduled to be complete by 2007.

The Belgian law, passed in 1993, gives the country's courts "universal jurisdiction" over war crimes. Faced with a backlog of suits against a number of national leaders, the Belgian senate voted earlier this year to change the law in an attempt to stop spurious claims.

The lawmakers amended the law to exclude prosecutions against citizens of democratic countries with independent judicial systems.

Despite the revisions, a suit was filed last month against U.S. Gen. Tommy Franks, who led the war in Iraq, and another officer, Marine Col. Brian P. McCoy.

The complaint was brought by left-wing Belgian lawyer Jan Fermon on the behalf of 17 Iraqis and two Jordanians who claim to have lost civilian family members as a result of allied military action in Iraq. The suit was condemned as a "misuse of the law" by the Belgian government, and officials promised to refer the complaint to the United States.

Under the original 1993 law, separate complaints were filed against former President George H. W. Bush, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Cuban President Fidel Castro. The suit against Sharon stemmed from killings at a Palestinian refugee camp and severely strained relations between Israel and Belgium.

Apart from the row over the war crimes law, NATO ministers reached agreements in several other areas.

A pact was reached on streamlining the alliance's command structure and creating a rapid reaction force that will be fully operational by 2006.

The ministers also partially overcame pre-war divisions and agreed to add Spanish forces to a Polish-led contingent working towards security in Iraq.

See previous story:
War Crimes Lawsuit Filed Against Franks in Belgium (14 May 2003)

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