Belgium is becoming an interesting country. In the course of a week, it has managed to upset both liberal opinion in Europe -- by granting the far-right Vlaams Blok 18 parliamentary seats -- and illiberal opinion in the US. On Wednesday, a human-rights lawyer filed a case with the federal prosecutors whose purpose is to arraign Tommy Franks, the commander of the American troops in Iraq, for crimes against humanity. This may be the only judicial means, anywhere on earth, of holding the US government to account for its actions.
The case has been filed in Belgium, on behalf of 17 Iraqis and two Jordanians, because Belgium has a law permitting foreigners to be tried for war crimes, irrespective of where they were committed. The suit has little chance of success, for the law was hastily amended by the government at the beginning of this month. But the fact that the plaintiffs had no choice but to seek redress in Belgium speaks volumes about the realities of British Prime Minister Tony Blair's vision for a world order led by the US, built on democracy and justice.
Franks appears to have a case to answer. The charges fall into four categories: the use of cluster bombs; the killing of civilians by other means; attacks on the infrastructure essential for public health; and the failure to prevent the looting of hospitals. There is plenty of supporting evidence.
US forces dropped around 1,500 cluster bombs from the air and fired an unknown quantity from artillery pieces. British troops fired 2,100. Each contained several hundred bomblets, which fragment into shrapnel. Between 200 and 400 Iraqi civilians were killed by them during the war. Others, mostly children, continue to killed by those bomblets which failed to explode when they hit the ground. The effects of their deployment in residential areas were both predictable and predicted. This suggests that their use there breached protocol II to the Geneva conventions, which prohibits "violence to the life, health and physical or mental well-being" of non-combatants.
On several occasions, US troops appear to have opened fire on unarmed civilians. In Nassiriya, they shot at any vehicle that approached their positions. In one night alone they killed 12 civilians. On a bridge on the outskirts of Baghdad they shot 15 in two days. Last month, US troops fired on peaceful demonstrators in Mosul, killing seven, and in Falluja, killing 13 and injuring 75. All these actions appear to offend the fourth convention.
The armed forces also deliberately destroyed civilian infrastructure, bombing the electricity lines upon which water treatment plants depended, with the result that cholera and dysentery have spread. Protocol II prohibits troops from attacking "objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population such as ... drinking water installations and supplies."
The fourth convention also insists that an occupying power is responsible for "ensuring and maintaining ... the medical and hospital establishments and services, public health and hygiene in the occupied territory." Yet when US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was asked why his troops had failed to prevent the looting of public buildings, he replied: "Stuff happens. Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things."
Many hospitals remain closed or desperately under-supplied. On several occasions US soldiers acted on orders to fire at Iraqi ambulances, killing or wounding their occupants. They shot the medical crews which came to retrieve the dead and wounded at the demonstration in Falluja. The Geneva conventions suggest that these are straightforward war crimes: "Medical units and transports shall be respected and protected at all times and shall not be the object of attack."