Belgium’s War Crimes Statute: A Postmortem

Steven R. Ratner, University of Michigan Law School

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The life and death of Belgium's universal jurisdiction law is a textbook case of the intersection of law and power in the international arena. A government, its consciousness raised by the increased global attention to individual responsibility for human rights atrocities, enacts a broad statute opening its courts to prosecutions of suspected murderers, torturers, and war criminals around the world. Stung by its peacekeepers' failure to prevent genocide in Rwanda, a former colony, Belgium eventually utilizes the law to try and convict a handful of accomplices to those atrocities. But politically troublesome cases trickle in, as opposing sides in the Middle East seek to have their day in Brussels; and another state, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), successfully brings an action in the World Court challenging arrest warrants against a former DRC official. The United States government eventually signals opposition to the statute, leading to its nearly instantaneous modification; when the United States says it is still too broad, the government guts the idea entirely.