Belgian Law May Force U.S. to Stop Attending NATO Meetings
By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service
BRUSSELS, Belgium, Jun. 12, 2003 Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said today that American officials may stop attending NATO meetings in Belgium because of a law that allows "spurious" suits accusing American leaders of war crimes.
Rumsfeld said the United States will withhold any further funding for a new NATO headquarters building here until the matter is resolved. He spoke during a press conference following the NATO defense ministerial.
The problem stems from Belgium's Universal Competence Law. Under this law, U.S. Central Command chief Army Gen. Tommy Franks has been charged with war crimes for his actions in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Former President George H.W. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Secretary of State Colin Powell and retired Army Gen. Norman Schwartzkopf, former CENTCOM commander, have also been charged for their roles in the 1991 Persian Gulf War.
The law gives Belgian courts the power to try citizens of any nation for war crimes. "These suits are absurd," Rumsfeld said. He said Franks went to great lengths to spare civilian lives during the war in Iraq.
"The point is this: By passing that law, Belgium has turned its legal system into a platform for divisive, politicized lawsuits against officials of its NATO allies," Rumsfeld said.
The secretary said that it's not for outsiders to tell the Belgian government what to do. "We respect their sovereignty," he said. "We respect it even though Belgium appears not to respect the sovereignty of other countries."
But, he said, Belgium must understand there are consequences. "We will have to seriously consider whether we can allow senior uniformed and civilian officials to come to Brussels," he said.
"Certainly until this matter is resolved we will have to oppose any further spending for construction of the new NATO headquarters in Brussels. Until we know with certainty that Belgium intends to be a hospitable place for NATO to conduct its business."
This is not the first time that U.S. officials have complained about the law. Joint Chiefs chairman Air Force Gen. Richard Myers commented on the law during a visit to NATO in April.
In March, Secretary of State Colin Powell also complained about the law.
U.S. Embassy officials said there have been discussions in the Belgium government about the law and its unintended consequences.