Prime Minister Sharon and the Belgian Tool of Law

By Arthur Lenk

Published February 28, 2003, issue of February 28, 2003.
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A central message of Jewish history is that justice, true justice, must be sought. The most enduring image of Israel’s great King Solomon was not as a warrior, a conqueror, a lover or a builder. The picture most of us first think of is his message of justice and the rule of logic and law.

Israel properly takes great pride in its Supreme Court and justice system, existing as it does in a region where such customs exist nowhere else. Similarly, American Jews are properly proud of the heritage of such Jewish legal figures as Louis Brandeis, Felix Frankfurter and Benjamin Cardozo.

The ruling of the Supreme Court of Belgium earlier this month regarding a potential indictment of Prime Minister Sharon, though, is a ruling in the spirit of a different Jewish tradition — the tradition of blood libels, false trials and misuse of the tools of justice for matters of politics and even antisemitism. These are strong words, but so too have been the words and actions of Belgium.

The Belgian Supreme Court is allowing forward a case of Palestinians and Lebanese citizens asking for a criminal indictment of a number of Israelis, including Sharon, for allegations regarding events which took place more than 20 years ago in Lebanon. There is no Belgian nexus whatsoever to the case except for Belgium’s hunger to put itself in the center of the matter. Israel itself, using its tradition of rule of law and introspection, investigated the case at the time and reached significant conclusions. No outsiders needed to tell Israel to look into the issue. In the Belgium of 2003, the facts have been changed and the charges have been trumped up.

The Belgian law was passed in 1993, but the case against Sharon was only submitted after he became Israel’s prime minister in 2001. The Belgian parliament had even prepared a revised law to allow for indictment even if the Supreme Court had rejected the claim. The Belgian press remains full of antisemitic images and descriptions. The Web site of the Gazet van Antwerpen newspaper noted that the efforts to bring Sharon to justice are still not secured because “Belgian Jewish lawyers will surely come up with ever new sophistries.” A political commentator congratulated the ruling as a stand against “pressures both diplomatic and economic.” Protestors outside the Supreme Court carried signs saying “vive l’intifada!”

The ideals of universal jurisdiction — that is, that there should be no impunity for the commission of the worst crimes — are widely shared. The lessons of the Nuremberg trials following history’s most evil acts are clear. In fact, Israel, the home to many Holocaust survivors, tried two individuals in connection with genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

The idea of universal jurisdiction is to bring to justice those who might not be tried or investigated at home. Many countries have joined together to form the new International Criminal Court to build an international body worthy of such future investigations. Israel took an active part in planning this endeavor, but reluctantly found itself on the outside when politics threatened the court’s noble goal. Nevertheless, the ideal of true justice and rejection of impunity must be sought and supported.

But Belgium? Belgium? This is universal jurisdiction on steroids! Who asked Belgium to take on the role of guarantor of justice?

Is Belgium more just and true? Have we forgotten about Belgium’s actions in the Congo over hundreds of years? What about the period from 1885 to 1908 when, as the personal property of King Leopold II, the Congo Free State is believed to have suffered violence and exploitation that cost millions of lives? Who remembers Belgium’s role in the 1961 assassination of Patrice Lumumba, Congo’s first prime minister? How about Belgium’s decision to pull out of Rwanda in the early days of the genocide during the 1990s?

In the matter involving Sharon, where are the checks and balances? Where are the slimmest ties of the case to Belgium? When Belgium sets up its own courts of “international justice” it challenges any chance of achieving real justice.

These are dangerous times. The international community is facing threats of terrorism, extremism, hidden missiles and bombs in Iraq, suicide bombers in Israel and attempts to shoot down passenger planes in Kenya. Children are learning to wear gas masks, many are afraid to travel internationally and citizens in many countries are buying supplies to be safe in time of non-conventional warfare.

The Belgian Supreme Court’s ruling offers support and comfort to those perpetrating such acts. It is a political and not a judicial statement. It is also a threat to soldiers and decision makers in other countries: Belgium will be carefully monitoring the world from its safe perch in the heart of Europe.

From the time of the Bible, people have been called upon to “understand righteousness and justice” (Proverbs 2:9). Anyone can understand that the Belgian Supreme Court’s ruling is not a search for justice but a travesty of justice. It must be challenged and rejected — for all of us, including the citizens of Belgium.

Arthur Lenk is an attorney at the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

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