The Blog

Judging Aussaresses

Two criminal cases, one in France and one in Belgium, show that an international criminal court by any other name is still foul.

11:01 PM, Dec 5, 2001 • By CLAUDIA WINKLER
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TWO CASES making their way through courts in Europe are symptomatic of a heightened interest in war crimes. They illustrate two contrasting approaches to reckoning with the past.

In Paris, an 83-year-old general and his publisher are on trial for statements in his memoir defending his actions in the late 1950s during the Algerian War. Prosecutors cited 19 passages in which an unrepentant Gen. Paul Aussaresses recounted supervising torture and ordering numerous summary executions. The general told the court he would do it all again if the enemy were Osama bin Laden.

Since Aussaresses's brutal actions were (a) government policy, (b) specifically approved at the time by Socialist interior minister (later president) Francois Mitterrand, and (c) covered under an amnesty in the 1960s, the defendants are being tried under an 1881 law on the press. A seldom-used provision of this law makes it a criminal offense to publish defenses of war crimes. Prosecutors are seeking fines of about $15,000 for Aussaresses and two executives of the firm that published his book last spring. Their three-day trial ended on November 28. A verdict is expected in January.

Also on November 28, a court in Brussels was hearing arguments for putting on trial a sitting prime minister--not of Belgium, but of Israel. Ariel Sharon is the target of legal action by 23 plaintiffs of various nationalities whose relatives were killed in the Sabra and Shatila massacres of 1982, during Israel's invasion of Lebanon. Sharon, then Israel's minister of defense, is accused of indirect responsibility for the massacres of up to 1,000 Palestinians at the two refugee camps, although Lebanese Christian militias did the deed.

So what makes this Belgium's business--or will, if the court affirms its jurisdiction early next year? A controversial 1993 law opens Belgian courts to human-rights complaints by foreign plaintiffs against foreign defendants. In the first case tried under the 1993 law, four Rwandans were sentenced in June to between 12 and 20 years' imprisonment for their role in the Tutsi genocide of 1994.

And there could be more to come. A group of 33 Israeli and Belgian plaintiffs retaliated with a complaint against Yasser Arafat the other day, for various terrorist slaughters over 35 years. And the courts are already considering suits against world leaders including Saddam Hussein, Fidel Castro, former Iranian president Hashemi Rafsanjani, and Rwandan president Paul Kagame.

Belgium, in other words, has volunteered itself as the site for a human-rights free-for-all, where the aggrieved and the activists of every nation can come and sue world leaders to right old wrongs or score political points. It's a little different from what seems to be happening in France.

While the Aussaresses trial may be most immediately striking to Americans as a reminder that France doesn't have what we know as freedom of the press, it has another aspect as well. The trial is taking place in the context of national soul-searching about events in the French past that extends beyond the courts, to fill the opinion pages and the talk shows and even the halls of government. The National Assembly, for example, has just issued a report after a year-long inquiry into France's role in the massacre at Srebrenica in 1995. A French general commanded the U.N. "safe" area where Bosnian Serbs troops massacred some 8,000 Bosnian men and boys.

The point is not that the French are incapable of handing down moral pronouncements on other countries' actions--or that the Belgians are singularly prone to it. Only that, given this universal disease, better to enlist your national institutions in self-examination than in busybodyism.

Claudia Winkler is a managing editor at The Weekly Standard.