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(Belgium courts have the power, under both Belgian and international law, to try war crimes committed anywhere in the world.) Ariel Sharon cancelled an official visit to Belgium in early 2001, which many said was because he feared being arrested, although the official reason given was the bombing of a disco in Israel.

Ariel Sharon, as an acting representative of a foreign government, is protected by international law. Therefore he could not be arrested in Belgium, or any other country that upholds the Vienna Convention of 1815. His visit was canceled as a sign of diplomatic protest, which is certainly in place. Also, Belgium is no "courthouse for the world", since most legal conventions disallow persecution by a country over crimes that happened in a foreign nation (and that did not involve any citizens of that country). Also, is not having a disco bombed with 21 murdered children a bad cause? I delete this. --Uriyan

"Ariel Sharon, as an acting representative of a foreign government, is protected by international law." That is a question of some dispute -- Belgium argues that while government representatives can't be arrested for ordinary crimes, they can be arrested for war crimes, genocide, crimes against humanity, etc. The Vienna Convention of 1815? Don't you mean the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which dates from some time in the 60s I think. War crimes are crimes of universal jurisdiction under international law, thus any state in the world has the right to try war crimes cases, not just cases involving its own citizens or territory. (Also, legal jurisdiction is determined by customary international law, not by conventional international law.) Most states don't take advantage of this right they have, but Belgium does. Israel also does, that is how they tried Eichmann (the Holocaust did not occur on Israeli territory, and none of its victims here Israeli citizens at the time it occured, since Israel did not then exist.) And the last sentence is completely true: he cancelled the visit, many people said it was because he feared being arrested, but the official Israeli government reason was the bombing of a disco. Everything in that sentence is true, and I don't see what your problem is with it. -- SJK
Well, Belgium can claim whatever it wants, but it is Belgian law, not international. Also, again, while I am not thoroughly familiar with the current legalities, all the cases of war crimes that I know of were ever put on trial, were put on trial in an international court, not a Belgian court. The only contrary case happened in Belgium several years ago, but again, that's Belgium and its view on the problem.

As to the Eichmann trial, please note the following difference: Sharon's action took place Israel, which is a souverign country recognized by Belgium, and which exists now. Eichmann was an official of Nazi Germany, which was dissolved, and therefore unable to try him (he could be tried in Western Germany, but it was only the heir of Nazi Germany). Sharon could, theoretically, be taken to an Israeli court. I'm sure that much more significant differences exist, but unfortunately I'm not yet familiar enough with the international law to put up a better answer. I meant the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations of 1961, which was based on practice that originated in the Vienna Congress of 1815 (I apologize for my ignorance).

In addition to the above: although I hate to go ad hominem, I must say that you eagerness to mention Sabra and Shatila without doing any further research on the problem (like reading Kahan's report, which is freely available on the Internet) is regrettable and indicates that your bias is stronger than your desire to be objective. It is you and your decisions; however wouldn't you feel better if you didn't omit details another side in this conflict might consider important? --Uriyan

I don't think international law protects anybody. Each state, being sovereign, does whatever it wants. It is customary to grant diplomatic immunity to individuals or classes of individuals.

The question Uriyan and SJK are discussing, needs clarification as to how Belgium would regard Sharon during a visit:

  1. It would grant him diplomatic immunity.
  2. It would refuse to grant him diplomatic immunity and seek to arrest him.

Ed Poor

Its more than Belgian law, its what Belgian claims the international law on the matter is (whether or not Belgian is right ultimately depends on future state practice, court decisions, etc.).

As to jurisdiction: there are about five different basises for jurisdiction recognized under international law: territorial jurisdiction (crimes committed on territory of the state), nationality jurisdiction (crime committed by a national of the state), jurisdiction based on the vital interests of the state (forget what this one is called), jurisdiction based on the nationality of the victim (once widely rejected, but increasingly accepted for terrorist offences), and universal jurisdiction (any state in the world can try the crime, no matter where it was committed and by who). Universal jurisdiction however only applies to certain offenses (e.g. piracy, genocide), so the question would be whether or not universal jurisdiction applies to whatever they would might indict Sharon for. And the primary jurisdiction under international criminal law rests with national courts, not international courts; international courts can only exercise criminal jurisdiction over individuals when a state has delegated its own jurisdiction to that court, and an international court can have no more criminal jurisdiction than the states that made the delegation did.

This is all well established customary international law, and is accepted by just about everybody. Just because the law on this matter may only be rarely applied doesn't mean it does not exist. (If you want a nice summary of all this, get a textbook on international law.)

Secondly, the distinction you make between the Eichmann case and what Belgium claims the right to do is irrelevant. The exercise of universal jursidiction under international law is not dependent on whether or not it is possible for the territorial state or the state of nationality to try it. Of course, if the territorial or nationality state (i.e. either Lebanon or Israel) is willing and able to try Sharon, then it has the right to do so instead of Belgium. But if either is unwilling or unable to do so for whatever reason, then (presuming universal jurisdiction applies to what Belgium indicts Sharon for), Belgium has the right to try him. The only possible difference is the question of whether or not what they seek to charge Sharon with is subject to universal jurisdiction. (Genocide, with which Israel charged Eichmann,

I was not aware that Kahan's report was available on the Internet (I knew there was an Israeli government inquiry, but I didn't know Kahan chaired it). Most of the information was what I remembered from news reports. I hope I was not overly biased. I will openly admit I really don't like Sharon, but I'm trying to be as neutral and unbiased as I can. (Look, I even went to the trouble of including a summary of his political career from gleaned the Israeli government; if all I wanted to do was attack him, why should have I bothered?) -- SJK

I thank you for this basic introduction, I will definitely look up international law references. Your original version was quite biased (to my Israeli taste). I tried to NPOV-ise it a bit (include both our opinions on fatality count, terrorism etc). You also did a similar thing to Menachem Begin (writing he was a terrorist without ever mentioning the Nobel Peace Prize - certainly, you'd mention it the latter if you wrote about Arafat!). However, I understand that total lack of bias is a hard goal (and it's diffcult for me to approach it two - and I'm sorry if I was in a flaming mood for a while). --Uriyan
Okay, I admit I was trying to stir people a little bit with the article on Begin, by calling him a terrorist. If I was biased with my original account of Sabra and Shetila, thats probably because a lot of the sources I use for news are probably biased from your point of view. And why didn't I mention the Nobel prize? because I'd forgotten it, thats why. -- SJK
Ed: "Each state, being sovereign, does whatever it wants" is not correct. State soverignity is subject to international law, most importantly the principle of pacta sunt servanda (i.e. states must abide by treaties they freely enter into) to, and the jus cogens/erga omnes rules of customary international law (i.e. rules like the prohibition of genocide, which no state is permitted to violate.) Since most states have signed lots of treaties, and they are bound by customary international law anyway, their soverignity is limited in quite a few ways. Also, be careful about your use of the word "custom" -- you seem to be using it to imply that its not legally required that they grant diplomatic immunity, its merely a custom -- but customs are legally binding under international law, provided they meet certain conditions (states in following the custom must feel a sense of legal obligation; newly established customs may not apply to persistent objectors to them). -- SJK


  1. the article on international law says, "International legal norms can be customary or conventional."
  2. I don't really care if he's a war criminal or not. Just say what he did (and who says he did it). Then say why that's a crime (and who says it's a crime). Ed Poor
Yes, the article on international law says that (I think I may even be the person who wrote that sentence). I'm just trying to make sure you understand what customary international law is, because the way you said it made me suspect you didn't. -- SJK

Article said:
Some claim that this suit is illegal, because trial of non-citizens for crimes supposedly comitted to non-citizens is not widely accepted in international law. However others disagree, and claim that states have the right under international law to try war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, even when the crime did not involve their nationals and did not occur on their territory, since these crimes are recognized as being subject to universal jurisdiction. (Israel made use of the same right as Belgium when it tried and convicted Adolf Eichmann for his involvement in the Holocaust, even though neither he nor any of his victims were Israeli nationals at the time, and the crime was not committed on Israeli territory.)
Some may claim that, but no international lawyer would claim that. They might claim it was illegal, but if they did it would be because what Sharon did was not an offense subject to universal jurisdiction, or because of head of government immunity during office, or something like that. Universal jurisdiction for at least some offences is accepted by everybody. I've got no problem with admitting this is a subject of legal dispute, I'm just asking that the dispute be framed correctly. -- SJK

SJK, do you think you could include some of what you have written on this page in the page on international law? I'd do it myself if i weren't certain to bungle it :-) --Anders Törlind

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Last edited December 20, 2001 10:48 pm by Anders Torlind (diff)