Inside the glass house: by Thalif Deen

24th June 2001

No escape for war criminals

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NEW YORK— The world's political and military leaders are being forewarned — double-check your past before you decide on a vacation in the United States or in Western Europe.

Or, for that matter, check your closets for skeletons before taking up diplomatic assignments in non-hardship posts in the Western world.

The extended arm of international law is now reaching across territorial waters to pick out the onetime war criminals, human rights violators and torturers.

Last week a group of 28 Palestinians filed suit in Belgium — one of the few countries in the world where even a head of state is not beyond the law — against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for war crimes committed during the 1982 massacres in the Sabra and Shatilla refugee camps in Lebanon.

As predicted in these columns last month ("No Shopping in Harrods for Retired Tyrants"), human rights groups are not only aggressively moving against individuals directly involved in war crimes but also against government officials indirectly linked to these crimes.

The law has even come back to haunt the United States which is one of the countries leading the fight against tyrants and military dictators accused of commiting atrocities.

During a visit to Paris last month, former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was served with a warrant to appear in a French court to answer questions about the American involvement in Chile during the repressive regime of General Augusto Pinochet.

Kissinger, who is also one of the most senior officials accountable for the Vietnam war in the 1970s, declined to appear in court citing other commitments and flew to Italy — post-haste.

But it is very unlikely he will take a second chance to check into the Ritz Hotel again.

Sharon's case — harking back to 1982 — may be strengthened even further by the atrocities being committed against Palestinians by the present Israeli regime headed by himself.

Rene Kosirnik, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation to Israel and the Palestinian territories, last month described the growing Israeli settlements as a breach of international law.

"The transfer, the installation of population of the occupying power into occupied territories is considerd an illegal move and qualified as a grave breach." And "grave breaches", he said, "are equal in principle to war crimes."

The US, which mollycoddles and protects Israel, had only one official comment to the ICRC statement: "We don't think this comment is helpful at this particular volatile situation," State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said.

The US, which is notorious for its double-standards on foreign policy, continues to bar former UN Secretary-General Kurt Waldheim from entering the US because of his wartime past and links to Nazis.

As a result, the former President of Austria, has been unable to attend any UN functions, including the Millennium Summit last year.

In May, the Austrian government sought clearance for Waldheim arguing that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) had cleared him of the charges.

But Richard Boucher, a spokesman for the State Department, said that the CIA files "were not the reason for putting Mr. Waldheim on the watch list."

The pressure against Waldheim is even more intense from the powerful pro-Jewish lobby in the country.

The determination to internationally prosecute war criminals and human rights violators was boosted last month with the conviction of four Rwandans, including two Catholic nuns, on charges of genocide in the 1994 massacre of Tutsis.

But the guilty verdict was not in a Rwandan court — but in Belgium where the four had sought political asylum.

The trial has been described as a milestone in international law because it was the first time that a jury in one country — Belgium — was asked to judge people accused of war crimes committed in another country, Rwanda.

Rwanda, incidentally, was a former Belgian colony.

The New York Times said last week that several former and present heads of state — of Yugoslavia, Iran, Zimbabwe — are being sued in American courts on both civil and criminal charges.

Last year, a New York jury ordered Radovan Karadzic, a former Bosnian Serb leader, to pay $4.5 million in damages to people, mostly Muslims, who were raped and tortured in the Balkan conflict.

When he visited New York for the Millennium Summit last September, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, was slapped with a $400 million law suit based on charges of killings and torture under his regime.

But since he is a sitting head of state, he was covered by sovereign immunity.

However, it is unlikely that Mugabe, once out of power, will ever think of vacationing in the United States.

Gregory Wallance, a US lawyer who has written extensively on the subject, was quoted as saying: "The Cold War paradigm was the United States as a global policeman. But the post-Cold War paradigm is the United States as a global attorney."

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