Israeli Group Seeks to Prevent Abuse of ‘Universal Jurisdiction’

By Julie Stahl | November 26, 2008 | 10:55 AM EST

( - At conference in London on Wednesday, scholars were debating the “promise and perils” of universal jurisdiction, a concept that allows foreign nationals to be prosecuted for crimes committed elsewhere.
The doctrine holds that some crimes – such as war crimes or genocide – are so horrible, that “universal” justice must apply.
A Palestinian civil rights group has used the doctrine to demand that a British court investigate an Israeli soldier for war crimes.
Reserve Israeli Maj-Gen Doron Almog participated in the rescue of hundreds of people on an Air France flight hijacked in Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976. He also was involved in the rescue of 7,000 endangered Jews from Ethiopia in the mid-1980s; and he secured Israel’s border with the Gaza Strip against terrorist infiltrators while heading the army’s Southern Command from 2000-2003.
But when Almog arrived in London in 2005 to raise funds for children with special needs, he was warned by Israeli officials not to get off the plane because he would be arrested for alleged war crimes at the request of a Palestinian group.
The Palestinians accused Almog of ordering the demolition of dozens of Palestinian homes in the Gaza Strip in retaliation for the deaths of Israeli soldiers. Israel said the homes were demolished because they were being used by terrorists to launch attacks on Israelis.
Such abuse of the “universal jurisdiction” doctrine is a “serious problem” in the West, said Dr. Dore Gold, head of the Israel-based Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.
“Originally the idea of universal jurisdiction was conceived in many European countries in order to stop war criminals -- former leaders who engaged in genocide, who have escaped the law,” Gold said. “Unfortunately, the whole system of universal jurisdiction has been abused,” he told before leaving for London this week.
The conference will try to distinguish when universal jurisdiction is relevant and can help combat genocidal murder; and when it is being abused by unleashing it against the political and military leaders of the West who are fighting terrorism, Gold said.
“There’s an important distinction to be drawn between countries that have effective legal systems and who indict officers who have allegedly been involved in war crimes as opposed to countries where there is no rule of law so that those engaging in the most heinous behavior are completely off the hook,” Gold said.
“Universal jurisdiction should be directed precisely at those countries like Iran, where those who engage in mass murder are considered heroes, and not against the U.S., the U.K. and Israel, who are leading the war on terrorism,” he said.
(The JCPA, which is co-sponsoring the conference, is now trying to bring Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the International Court of Justice on charges of incitement to genocide for his calls to wipe Israel off the map.)
Gold said the conference is being held in Britain, because that's where problems with universal jurisdiction have cropped up.
Almog still cannot travel to Britain. He is participating in Wednesday’s conference through a video link. He could not be reached for comment on Wednesday.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry, which declined to comment on the issue because of its sensitivity, would say only that Israel is engaged with the British government on the issue.
Britain’s law could affect many Israeli, American and other Western military officers who are fighting terrorism around the world.
“I don’t think the American or British people would like to see their officers dragged in front of foreign courts because of a distorted application of international law,” Gold said. “The conference seeks to remedy that problem.”
Gold also pointed to a Belgian law under which former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, President George H.W. Bush, former Secretary of State Colin Powell, and Vice President Dick Cheney could have been brought to trial.
In 2003, a Belgian court ruled that former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon could be prosecuted for war crimes after he left office. Two years earlier, a Belgian judge opened an investigation into a Palestinian complaint that Sharon was responsible for the 1982 massacre of some 800 Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Beirut.
Sharon, who was Israel’s defense minister at the time, had overall command of Lebanese militiamen, who entered the refugee camps in search of terrorists believed to be hiding there and killed Palestinian men, women and children.
Belgium eventually recognized the problem with universal jurisdiction and changed its law.