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Lawyers Without Borders?
Kissinger, Accused of War Crimes, Decries 'Universial Jurisdiction'

Start streaming audio Listen to Michele Kelemen's report for All Things Considered.

Click for more information View a timeline of Kissinger's career

Henry Kissinger
Henry Kissinger.
Photo: Associated Press

Aug. 8, 2001 -- Human rights groups call it the "Pinochet Precedent." First, former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was arrested in Europe. Then came the indictment of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

And now, lawyers for Israelís Prime Minister Ariel Sharon are trying to block Belgian courts from charging him with war crimes, for allegedly allowing the massacre of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon two decades ago. Sharon recently called off a trip to Belgium to avoid further legal trouble.

Here in the United States, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger is also reportedly wary about where he travels, though he denies it. Heís been asked to provide testimony in several countries that are delving into Cold War-era crimes.

Belgium has taken this movement a big step forward, exercising whatís known as "universal jurisdiction." For instance, the Sharon case now working its way through the Belgian courts has nothing to do with Belgium or Belgians.

Survivors of the Lebanon massacre have asked Belgian authorities to use a new law on universal jurisdiction to indict Sharon for war crimes.

Protester in San Francisco
Protester outside The Commonwealth Club of California in June, where Kissinger was speaking.
Photo: Associated Press

In a recent NPR interview, Kissinger lambasts the idea of universal jurisdiction and says legal principles should not be used as weapons to settle old political scores.

"I think when every national judge can assume jurisdiction... the legal system will be a way of conducting political battles the various contestants will pursue each other in courts around the world," he said.

This is a very personal issue for Kissinger and a touchy matter for the United States. Three countries -- Chile, Argentina, and France -- want him to testify about disappearances and killings in Chile, when the Nixon administration was supporting the Pinochet government.

Some critics, like author Christopher Hitchens, also argue that the former secretary of state has a lot to answer for regarding the U.S. bombings of Laos and Cambodia during the Vietnam War.

NPR's Michele Kelemen interviews Kissinger for All Things Considered.



Timeline of Henry Kissinger's Career

May 27, 1923: Born in Fuerth, Germany

1938: Moved to the U.S. with family to escape Nazis

1943: Joined the U.S. Army Counter-Intelligence Corps and became captain in Military Intelligence Reserve. He also became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

1954: Received Ph.D. in International Relations from Harvard University and joined the school's faculty.

1957: Published Nuclear Weapons and Foreign Policy

1958: Received the Woodrow Wilson Prize for the best book in the fields of government, politics and international affairs.

1961: Named consultant to National Security Council

1965-1968: Served as a consultant to the U.S. Department of State

1969: Served as Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs under President Richard Nixon and became the head of the National Security Council. In his role, Kissinger helped engineer the U.S. bombing of Cambodia and opened detenté with Soviet Union.

1972: Helped negotiate the Strategic Arms Limitations Talks I agreements with the Soviet Union and developed rapprochement with China's Premier Chou En-Lai.

1973: Sworn in at the White House as the 56th Secretary of State on September 22. Initiated Vietnam cease-fire pact which lead to the U.S. withdrawal. He was awarded Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the Vietnamese truce.

1977: Kissinger leaves office after President Carter's election and became professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service.

1978: Started Kissinger Associates, a consulting firm, to continue his work on international affairs.

1980: Won American Book Award for White House Years, his first memoir.

1983-1985: Appointed to chair the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America by President Reagan.

1984-1990: Served on President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board


Web Resources:

Read the transcript of Regarding Henry Kissinger, a forum organized by Harper's Magazine earlier this year.