Apr 14th 2002

Lastly but not least, I ran into this interesting article from and felt obliged to share it in its entirety, with visitors of this page. It raises interesting questions about the enforcement of international laws and sheds light on the two September tragedies, one in 1982 and the other in 2001, both having great relevance to the current crisis we are experiencing in the Middle-East.

Will all human beings be subject to the same law, and more importantly, to the same application of the law? Will all the victims of devastating September days see those responsible for their suffering appear before a court of law? The question is as old as history. In the Middle East, the question acquired additional meaning on Sept. 11.

As those responsible for the crimes against humanity perpetrated against New York and Washington residents are being pursued across the world, the case against Ariel Sharon for the massacres perpetrated in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila is proceeding before the Belgium courts. Will the person who an Israeli commission of enquiry found to “bear personal responsibility” for the massacres in Sabra and Shatila in Sept. 1982 finally be held to account and put behind bars? A few weeks before the complaint was filed by 23 plaintiffs in Brussels on June 18, 2001, the first full trial held under a Belgian “universal jurisdiction” law resulted in the conviction and sentencing of four persons who were found guilty of the large-scale massacres in Rwanda. A week after the case against Sharon was brought before the Belgian criminal courts, Slobodan Milosevic was arrested in Belgrade and delivered to the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague. With the Sharon case, and the massacres of Sept. 11, a further test for global justice is afoot. Comparisons are always difficult. Massacres are too complex and dramatic to be exactly similar in every respect, and the massive crime perpetrated in New York on Sept. 11 is sui generis in many ways. But it is no different in essence from the massacre perpetrated between Sept. 16 and 18, 1982 in the Palestinian camps of Beirut. Then Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon encircled the camps, sealed them, and sent in his closest allies amongst the Lebanese militias to “cleanse” the area of the “2,000 terrorists” which he insisted had remained there. As a result, hundreds of Palestinian and Lebanese civilians were subject to three days of relentless torture, rape and killing, while hundreds more were arrested and trucked away, never to come back: an estimated 2000 civilians were killed or disappeared. All massive killings remain stuck in the memory of horror and guilt. Unlike occasional murders, they are remembered by every human being. Unlike any other violent act, the wantonness and scale of large-scale killings of innocents puts the event at a different level altogether, a level shared by other notorious tragedies in modern history: Halabja in Kurdish Iraq in 1988, the killing fields of Cambodia, Srebrenica in the former Yougoslavia, Sabra and Shatila, and now New York. Such atrocities are different from ordinary crimes because of their context and magnitude. By its sheer size, its wantonness, its ferocity, its callousness, its set-up, the means used and the thousands of innocent civilians destroyed in a brief lapse of time, the crime then qualifies as a crime against humanity, a category which is well defined in international law and carries the common responsibility of all humankind. Article 7 of the International Criminal Court (ICC) Statutes of 1998, for example, describes a crime against humanity as an act “committed as part of a widespread or systematic attack directed against any civilian population.” There is consistent case-law in serious courts across the world that have tried these and related crimes, from the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials to the Pinochet case in Britain, irrespective of the place where the massacre took place. The principle of universal jurisdiction can be found in the very early principles of “the law of people.” The great European publicist Vattel wrote in 1758 that even if justice is normally limited territorially to the state in which a crime is committed, “one must except from the rule those thugs who, because of the magnitude of their crimes ­ declare themselves the enemy of human kind.” This is why “universal jurisdiction” is compelling: any court can, nay should, try the perpetrator and his accomplices. There is more in common between September 1982 in Beirut and Sept. 11 in New York. The law of June 16, 1993 (modified on Feb. 10, 1999), under which the case was brought by survivors against Ariel Sharon in Belgium, offers a good example of a precise, common, language: not only does the statute condemn mass killings and other crimes as crimes against humanity under the the ICC treaty’s definition, but the Belgian law also calls for the prosecution of “those who design, hold or carry an instrument ­ or transform an existing instrument or construction ­ for the purpose of carrying such crimes.” The details of the use of aircraft as mass murder instrument on Sept. 11 could hardly be better qualified. The consequences for crimes against humanity are significant. Under international law, all mankind is legally involved. Every single person in the world is concerned, and every government is bound to cooperate to produce the suspects and culprits, and assist in the investigation. Crimes against humanity mobilize the whole world, as the crime occurs on a scale of its own, as in the treatment of Nazi crimes in the 1961 Eichmann case in Israel, or the Rwanda and Yugoslavia increasing case-law. The principle of trying mass crime in a different way than ordinary murders is graphically expressed by a French author, who finds it inconceivable “to make the Holocaust lose it nature by permitting its division into six million individual murders.” Mechanisms designed to punish crimes against humanity are also specific. They stress short-term measures such as the rejection of sovereign prerogatives and long-term pursuit. They refuse amnesties and time limitations, involve worldwide investigations, accountability and responsibility coupled with the need to pursue the perpetrators and accomplices. They also reject traditional obstacles in both investigation and trial. For crimes against humanity, there is no acceptable obstacle between justice and the author of the crimes. No decent person doubts that Osama bin Laden should be pursued and brought to justice for the Sept. 11 massacres. The question posed to the world by the Sharon case in Belgium is similar: will the man without whom the Sabra and Shatila massacres would not have taken place continue to remain beyond criminal retribution?


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