BRUSSELS -- Israel has reacted angrily to a ruling by Belgium's Supreme Court that leaves the way open for an investigation into the alleged role of Ariel Sharon in a 1982 massacre. Yet Belgium is doing what all countries are supposed to do - enforcing the most basic norms of humanity.
Belgian law, like that of many other nations, incorporates the principle of universal jurisdiction. This holds that every state has an interest in bringing to justice the perpetrators of certain atrocities no matter where they were committed.
Israel itself breathed life into this principle in the case of Adolf Eichmann. In 1960, Israeli forces snatched Eichmann from Argentina and put him on trial for his part in the Holocaust. The Israeli Supreme Court held that the "peculiarly universal character" of crimes against humanity vests in every state the authority to try and punish anyone who participated in their commission.
Increasingly aware of their own abusive history in Africa, Belgians have embraced the opportunity to play a role in the fight against the worst crimes. Austria, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland have also brought suspects to trial on the basis of universal jurisdiction.
The breakthrough for its use was Spain's indictment in 1998 of Augusto Pinochet for killings and torture committed during his rule in Chile.
The United States, too, exercises universal jurisdiction, although mostly in civil cases. In the most famous criminal case, the family of a Paraguayan boy tortured to death sued his torturer who had come to the United States. A U.S. court of appeals, in upholding jurisdiction, declared that "the torturer has become like the pirate and slave trader before him, an enemy of all mankind."
Until recently, it seemed that if you killed one person you went to jail but if you slaughtered thousands you usually got away with it. Universal jurisdiction is international law's answer to this wall of immunity.
The massacre of more than 700 civilians in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatilla, in which Sharon is allegedly implicated, is a case in point. There is abundant evidence that war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed, but not a single individual has been brought to justice.
As defense minister, Sharon had overall responsibility for the Israeli Defense Forces. He allowed Lebanese Phalangist militias to enter the camps, where they went on a three-day rampage of killing and mutilation while Israeli forces failed to intervene.
In February 1983, an official Israeli commission of inquiry named Sharon as one of the individuals who "bears personal responsibility" for the massacre. Yet neither Sharon nor any other official has been investigated criminally for this evident atrocity.
Because Israel has refused to act, it is only natural for the Sabra and Shatilla victims to seek justice elsewhere. Rather than fuming at Belgium for doing what all countries should do but few dare, Israel should preempt Belgium by completing its own unfinished business.