Human Rights Watch today rejects a claim that a Belgian arrest warrant for the acting Foreign Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo violates international law. The warrant charges the official with war crimes and crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch strongly supports the Belgian law and the principle of "universal jurisdiction" that underlies it.
The Belgian law is part of a growing trend towards accountability for human rights crimes," said Richard Dicker, Director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch. "Prosecutions based on universal jurisdiction are an essential part of the emerging system of international justice. They help to break down the wall of immunity with which tyrants and torturers protect themselves in their own countries."
The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) has filed a petition to the International Court of Justice which will be heard on November 20. The petition asserts that the Belgian law violates The DRC'S territorial integrity, and that the international arrest warrant undercuts the diplomatic immunity of its acting Foreign Minister Yerodia Abdoulaye Ndombasi. The warrant is based on a 1999 Belgian law that gives Belgian courts the authority to prosecute individuals accused of war crimes and other atrocities regardless of the crimes' connection to Belgium or the accused's presence on Belgian soil.
The warrant accuses Mr. Yerodia of war crimes and crimes against humanity because he made public calls for the Congolese population to kill members of the Tutsi ethnic group at the start of the rebellion against President Laurent Kabila in August 1998.
According to Human Rights Watch's own research, as the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan army and its Congolese allies, the Congolese Rally for Democracy (RCD), advanced on Kinshasa in the summer of 1998, Congolese government officials exploited existing tensions between Tutsi and other ethnic groups for war propaganda. On August 4,1998 Abdoulaye Yerodia, then President Kabila's cabinet director, appeared on national television making thinly-veiled calls for ethnic attacks on Tutsis. As a result of these statements and other incitement, a large number of Tutsis in the DRC were slaughtered.
Human Rights Watch stressed that war crimes and crimes against humanity are still taking place right now in the DRC, and that an international justice mechanism urgently needs to be set up in order to hold accountable those from all sides in the civil war who are responsible for serious crimes. Since the beginning of 2000, hundreds of civilians have been slaughtered in the eastern DRC by the Rwandan army and its allies, the Goma-based RCD, who are fighting against the Kabila government. Armed groups that oppose the RCD and receive support from Kabila, such as Hutu armed groups and Mai Mai rebels, have also committed gross abuses against civilians, including widespread rape. There are also widespread abuses in the area controlled by the breakaway RCD Liberation Movement (RCD-ML) supported by Uganda.
Like the laws that permitted General Augusto Pinochet's arrest in London for crimes committed largely in Chile, the Belgian law is based on the rule of "universal jurisdiction," applicable to the most egregious atrocities. The rule, which was given explicit expression by the Nuremberg Tribunal after World War II, recognizes that all states have an interest in bringing to justice the perpetrators of particular crimes of international concern, no matter where the crime was committed, and regardless of the nationality of the perpetrators or their victims.
A principal reason why international law provides for universal jurisdiction is to ensure that there is no "safe haven" for those responsible for the most serious crimes. The Belgian law resembles some legislation being adopted in other countries as they ratify the treaty for the International Criminal Court.
Courts in Austria, Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland have applied laws based on universal jurisdiction to individuals accused of crimes arising out of the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. The effort to try General Augusto Pinochet was the most recent dramatic example of a prosecution for crimes with universal jurisdiction status. While Spain's effort to prosecute Pinochet did not ultimately succeed, the litigation had helped to allow victims in Chile bring cases that had previously been barred before Chilean courts because of the immunity Pinochet had enjoyed there. In August 2000, the Chilean Supreme Court lifted Pinochet's immunity for life.
Similarly, in February an investigative judge in Senegal issued a warrant for the former Chadian dictator, Hissène Habré, for acts of torture committed in Chad in the 1980s. That case is now on appeal as victims file cases in Chadian courts against Habré's accomplices.