Belgium Can Reject Case Against Kuwaiti Officials, Rights Court Finds

The case stems from the first Gulf War, when thousands of Palestinians with Jordanian nationality say they were deported from Kuwait after being tortured.

The European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France. (Photo via CherryX/Wikipedia)

STRASBOURG, France (CN) — Belgium does not have to hear a case brought by Jordanians expelled by Kuwait during the first Gulf War, the European Court of Human Rights ruled Tuesday. 

The Strasbourg-based ECHR found that Belgian courts are not bound by universal jurisdiction to investigate allegations of torture made by more than 7,000 Jordanians, mostly of Palestinian origin, who were forcibly deported from Kuwait during the Iraqi occupation in the early 1990s. 

“Neither international law nor the [European Convention on Human Rights] results in an obligation for the contracting states to acquire universal civil jurisdiction,” the seven-judge panel wrote in a decision only available in French. 

Iraq, led by Saddam Hussein, occupied its southern neighbor for seven months in 1990 over allegations of oil theft. A U.S.-led coalition liberated the country in February 1991.

During the occupation, hundreds of thousands of people fled or were forced from the country, including some 70,000 people who were forcibly deported from Kuwait. According to the Jordanian government, around 6,000 people reported they’d been tortured or mistreated during detention in the run-up to their deportation. 

A group of forced deportees established a lobbying organization, the Cooperative Society for the Gulf War Returnees, to fight for compensation. In 2001, the group filed an investigation request with a judge in Brussels, Belgium, naming 74 Kuwaiti state officials they wanted to be investigated for genocide and torture. 

The group chose Belgium because, by then, some of its members had acquired Belgian citizenship and, at the time, Belgium had one of the broadest universal jurisdiction laws in the world. Under a legal principle that says any nation can adjudicate certain atrocity crimes regardless of where they were committed, Belgium passed a broad law in 1993 allowing it to prosecute those behind the killing of 10 Belgian peacekeepers in Rwanda. 

Belgium went on to convict several Rwandans for crimes committed during the genocide but ran into trouble when people attempted to file cases against world leaders, such as former U.S. President George H. W. Bush and former Cuban President Fidel Castro. 

Belgium scrapped the law in 2003, limiting cases to crimes where the accused person is Belgian or lives in Belgium, bringing it more in line with other European countries. 

The Jordanians argued that changing the law in the middle of their case violated their right to a free trial. A Belgian appeals court found that only pending cases in which investigations were complete could be continued under the new law. 

“The grounds adopted by the courts for declaring themselves lacking jurisdiction were neither arbitrary nor manifestly unreasonable,” the ECHR ruled.

Belgium argued both that it lacked the resources to investigate the 30-year-old allegations and that even if it could, it was likely that the perpetrators would be immune from prosecution as government officials. 

In 2018, the ECHR found that states are required to exercise universal jurisdiction over torture, but only for criminal complaints, not civil cases. 

The court was established in 1959 by the European Convention on Human Rights, which protects the civil and political rights of the citizens of the 47 European member states that are parties to the treaty. 

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