WASHINGTON - Efforts by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush to gain immunity for its citizens from the jurisdiction of international and national tribunals that claim the right to prosecute human rights atrocities, such as genocide, are making slow but steady progress.
Two weeks after Washington persuaded 12 of 15 members of the UN Security Council to exempt U.S. citizens from the jurisdiction of the newly established International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague, the Belgian government has agreed to substantially amend a law that gave its courts the power to investigate and prosecute serious human rights abuses regardless of where they took place.
The administration had threatened to withhold funds needed to build a new NATO headquarters in Brussels unless the law was rescinded or changed to Washington's satisfaction.
In addition, eight more countries over the past two weeks have reportedly signed bilateral accords with the U.S. that bar them from transferring any U.S. citizens to the custody of the ICC, which was established to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
They reportedly include Bolivia, Egypt, Thailand, Uganda, Mongolia, Nicaragua, Tunisia, the Seychelles, Togo, and Mauritius. That brings the number of countries that have signed such agreements to 45, although, with the exception of India and Israel, almost all of those that have signed are small, impoverished, and heavily dependent on U.S. military and economic aid. Ninety countries, including all members of the European Union, have ratified the Rome Statute which created the ICC.
The administration is pressing countries to sign the accords before July 1 after which, according to an anti-ICC law enacted last year by Congress, the president will have to sign a waiver to permit countries which do not have a bilateral agreement in place to receive U.S. military aid.
Since May, 2002, when the administration formally renounced former President Bill Clinton's signing of the Rome Statute, it has pursued what one human rights activist has called a "jihad" against any laws or institutions that could conceivably prosecute U.S. citizens for human rights atrocities.
With some 150,000 U.S. troops deployed in Iraq, another 9,000 in Afghanistan, tens of thousands more in scores of countries across Eurasia and in and around the Persian Gulf, and a national-security doctrine that depicts Washington as the ultimate guarantor of international peace and security, the administration is worried that it could become a prime target for prosecutions by international officials and foreign governments that want to constrain U.S. power.
Washington's efforts to get Belgium to amend or rescind a 1993 law that gave its courts "universal jurisdiction" to prosecute atrocities have been especially determined, particularly after seven Iraqi families filed suit against former President George H.W. Bush and several of his top officials for alleged war crimes committed in the first Gulf War.
The Belgian parliament narrowed the law in April to permit the government to transfer cases to the home countries of the accused if its legal system was considered fair and democratic. After the amendment was approved, Brussels immediately referred all pending cases against past and current U.S. officials--including one that was just filed against the younger Bush and several of his top aides, including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld--to the United States.
But this was not good enough for the administration. Speaking at a NATO meeting in Brussels two weeks ago, Rumsfeld assailed the law publicly, accusing the government of "turn(ing) its legal system into a platform for divisive politicized lawsuits against her NATO allies." He said U.S. officials would be unlikely to attend NATO meetings if they faced possible prosecution under the law and gave notice Washington would oppose any further spending for construction of the new NATO headquarters in Brussels until the law was rescinded.
On Monday, the Belgian government announced plans to narrow the law's scope even further to appease Washington's anger. Instead of asserting universal jurisdiction over atrocities, Brussels agreed to limit cases to those in which Belgian residents were either victims or perpetrators and adopt other safeguards against politically motivated prosecutions. It also briefed the U.S. ambassador in Brussels on its proposals, although Washington has not yet said whether it considers the changes sufficient to meet its demands.
Human rights activists have assailed the administration for its attempts to undermine international efforts to create universal jurisdiction for atrocities in general and to gut the Belgian law, in particular.
"Belgium has clearly capitulated to U.S. pressure," Reed Brody, advocacy director of New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) told the Christian Science Monitor this week. "This does harm to the universality of universal justice, and it's a clear setback," he said after the Belgian announcement.
The threats leveled by Rumsfeld, he said, "are part of a jihad the U.S. is waging against independent international justice on every front. It has much less to do with whether a U.S. peacekeeper might be accused of genocide than with destroying the whole idea of an independent tribunal that can rule on U.S. actions abroad."
"It's an enormous step backward," said Montserrat Carreras of Amnesty International of Belgium's capitulation to U.S. demands.
The administration is also moving against a 215-year-old U.S. law, the Alien Tort Claims Act (ATCA), which gives federal courts universal jurisdiction for serious human rights abuses.
The U.S. Justice Department last month filed an amicus brief in a case before the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that called for it to dismiss a case brought by Burmese peasants against Unocal for abuses, including murder, torture and rape, committed by Burmese troops hired to protect a pipeline being built by a consortium of companies that included the California energy giant.
ATCA, which has been used as a potent weapon by human rights activists against foreign dictators and military officers accused of atrocities in their home countries over the last 20 years, permits foreigners to sue for abuses "committed in violation of the law of nations or a treaty of the United States." The law's opponents, which also include the Chamber of Commerce, claim that the law was never intended to have the scope that U.S. courts have given it and now threatens U.S. corporate investment in developing countries.
© 2003 OneWorld.net