Ruling by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) Implications on the War Crimes Suit against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for the 1992 Massacre of Palestinian Refugees?

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International human rights organizations and experts have expressed their disappointment at the decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ), issued on 14 February, that a Belgian arrest warrant for the acting Foreign Minister of the Democratic Republic of the Congo violated international law. The ICJ ruled that the Belgian warrant failed to respect the Foreign Minister's "immunity from criminal jurisdiction."

"This is a disappointing decision because it effectively shields some state officials from prosecution for atrocities," said Reed Brody, Advocacy Director of Human Rights Watch. "Government ministers who commit crimes against humanity and war crimes are not likely to be prosecuted at home, and this ruling means they will enjoy impunity abroad as well. This decision goes against the international trend towards accountability for the worst abuses."

According to Human Rights Watch, the Belgian anti-atrocities law is part of a growing trend towards accountability for the worst international crimes. Prosecutions based on universal jurisdiction, such as those now possible under Belgian law, are an essential part of the emerging system of international justice. They help to break down the wall of immunity with which tyrants and torturers protect themselves in their own countries, the group said. (For more on the position of Human Rights Watch, see:

It is yet too early to judge the exact implications of this ICJ ruling on the progress of the war crimes suit filed in Belgium against Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. Sharon's lawyers and the Israeli media have already expressed their satisfaction, expecting that the ICJ's ruling will put an end to the legal charges against the Israeli Prime Minister. The Belgian court will have to tackle this matter in the context of its decision about further proceedings in the Sharon war crimes case scheduled for 6 March.

In the meantime, the lawyers representing the Palestinian and Lebanese plaintiffs against Ariel Sharon have issued the following press release explaining their preliminary reading of the ICJ ruling in the case of the Congolese foreign minister:

by the Lawyers Representing the Victims of the Sabra and Shatila Massacres

DATE: 14 February 2002

We have taken note of the decision of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) in the Congo v. Belgium case issued earlier today. Formally, this decision concerns only the parties to the litigation. The State of Israel, unlike the Democratic Republic of Congo, does not accept the jurisdiction of the ICJ. Nevertheless, the decision may affect the debate on the possible immunity of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for crimes committed in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila in 1982. A first reading of the text elicits the following comments:

1. The decision granting immunity to a Minister of Foreign Affairs undermines the progress of international humanitarian law as consecrated in the statutes of international tribunals and as supported by a systematic body of expert opinion. Granting immunity to any official is a step backwards in view of the seriousness of the crimes which international law and the Belgian statute of 1999 seek to punish.

2. It is important to understand the exact scope, essentially a functional and limited one, which the Court gives to this rule on immunity. In paragraph 54, the Court specifies that "immunity and inviolability protect the individual concerned against any act of authority of another State which would hinder him or her in the performance of his or her duties." It is chiefly the "issuance" and "circulation" of the international arrest warrant issued against Mr. Yerodia which were rejected by the Court as a "hindrance in the performance of his duties" as Minister of Foreign Affairs of the Congo.

In the Sabra and Shatila case, no arrest warrant was requested, and no measure was requested that would prevent Mr. Sharon from pursuing his national and international activities. The immunity that the Court recognized today does not prevent the pursuit of the criminal investigation in the Sabra and Shatila massacres.

3. The decision of the International Court qualifies immunity as merely temporary. In the Sabra and Shatila trial, at least concerning Mr. Ariel Sharon, it is important to note the wording of the ICJ to the effect that: "Provided that it has jurisdiction under international law, a court of one State may try a former Minister for Foreign Affairs of another State in respect of acts committed prior or subsequent to his or her period of office." From the perspective of Belgian law on universal jurisdiction, which today's ICJ decision does not address, there is, in theory, no obstacle to the issuance of an arrest warrant against Mr. Sharon as soon as he stops exercising his present functions. Реклама: - Scooter rental in Barcelona

4. Finally, and with regard to general principles, the decision insists on the fact that immunity is not equivalent to impunity. Without prejudice to the decision that will be rendered by the Brussels Court of Appeal on March 6, the case does not only concern Mr. Sharon. Other suspects, notably Amos Yaron, are not covered by any immunity.

Chibli Mallat, Luc Walleyn, Michal Verhaeghe


For additional information CONTACT: Laurie King-Irani, North American Coordinator, International Campaign for Justice for the Victims of Sabra and Shatila, tel. 001-250-213-6872;

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