as the violence intensifies in israel and the Occupied Territories, desperate human rights groups are demanding an international presence, citing vast breaches of international law -- from the murder of Israeli civilians to the deadly response of the Israel Defense Force.Most attention is focused on Israel, because of the scale of its invasion of the Territories. Charges include the wanton murder of civilians, massive extra-judicial assassinations and denial of access to medical services.
But those who have followed the career of Ariel Sharon, the architect of this bloody campaign, say they are experiencing some unsettling déjà vu. Indeed, it's the strangest of coincidences that just as Israel started intensifying its strafing of refugee camps a few weeks back, a Belgian court thousands of miles from the desert sands was wrestling with the legalities of trying Sharon for the 20-year-old massacres at the Sabra and Shatila camps in Lebanon. If his current iron-fisted response doesn't prove the Israeli prime minister's undoing, his horrific incursion into Beirut might. Despite a couple of recent setbacks, the genocide and crimes-against-humanity case being brought against Sharon for the murder, rape and disappearance of hundreds of Palestinian men, women and children refuses to go away.
And while the courtroom wrangling continues, the affair is now wrapped in more intrigue due to the assassinations and mysterious death of three former Israeli-allied Lebanese militiamen in the last few months. The highest-profile hit happened in January when former Phalange leader Elie Hobeika died in a car bombing in Beirut. Hobeika, who led the Phalange forces during the massacres, had indicated that he would be willing to testify in Belgium against Sharon.
After lengthy pretrial proceedings, a Belgian court was to decide earlier this month whether the case could finally go to trial. Belgium has unique laws on its books that allow war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide cases to be tried even if the accused don't reside in the country. (Cases against other world figures, including Fidel Castro and Yasser Arafat, have also been brought there.)
But before that ruling came down, the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled on another war crimes case before a Belgian court. Last month the ICJ struck down an arrest warrant issued two years ago by the Belgian court for Congo's then foreign minister, Abdoulaye Yerodia Mdombasi, who was facing allegations of war crimes against the Tutsi minority in his country.
The decision was confusing since the accused is no longer a government official, but the court determined that since he was when the arrest warrant was issued, he's still entitled to diplomatic immunity.
Moments after that decision was released, an official from Belgium's foreign ministry was quick to announce that this decision also closed the door on the Sharon case. But lawyers for the Sabra and Shatila survivors recently filed a request to reopen the proceedings -- a request that was granted by the court. They'll argue that while the Congo foreign minister faced counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, Sharon is also facing a count of genocide. Under international law, diplomatic immunity is waived in cases of genocide.
"It's black-letter law that there is no immunity for genocide. That's clear in the genocide convention," says Francis Boyle, professor of international law at the University of Illinois, adding, "Assuming it goes to trial, it would be up to the plaintiffs to establish that Sharon was responsible for genocide at Sabra and Shatila."
Boyle notes that there is already a United Nations General Assembly resolution condemning the massacres as genocide.
In September of 1982, then defence minister Sharon's army occupied west Beirut and surrounded the Sabra and Shatila camps. Sharon sent in Phalange militiamen, supposedly to rout remaining terrorists. But when the militiamen emerged 40 hours later, hundreds (some estimates are in the thousands) of men, women and children had been slain.
Widespread outrage in Israel after the massacres prompted a commission of inquiry that determined that Sharon bore "personal responsibility" for the killings. Sharon was subsequently stripped of his defence minister post, although he remained a member of the Israeli cabinet.
Israel's embassy in Ottawa has made no official comment on the case, but spokesperson David Cooper points to recent Israeli media reports that the ICJ decision has effectively killed the case.
None of the alleged perpetrators of the Sabra and Shatila massacres have ever been brought to trial. email@example.com