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Justice Without Borders

When a jury in Brussels found four Rwandans guilty of genocide for their roles in the country's 1994 civil war, it set a legal landmark: a conviction in an ordinary criminal court for war crimes committed on another continent.

Now, reports CBS News Correspondent Richard Roth, a Belgian magistrate is investigating whether Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon should be tried as a war criminal for what happened in Lebanon almost 20 years ago.

Sharon was defense minister of Israel when allies in a Lebanese militia massacred civilians in two Palestinian refugee camps.

But why a court trial in Brussels? The reason is a Belgian law allowing prosecution for crimes committed elsewhere. The defendant doesn't even have to be in the country.

It's based on a legal concept called "universal jurisdiction" and human rights groups say it ought to be encouraged.

"States have duties to the international community with respect to such horrific crimes that have been responsible for tens of millions of people being killed, disappeared, tortured," says Christopher Hall of Amnesty International.

Actually, universal jurisdiction dates back almost 500 years, when it was a way of bringing the law of the land to pirates on the high seas. What's new is the growing number of governments willing to investigate crimes overlooked in the countries where they were committed.

It's the concept that led to the capture of Augusto Pinochet. The former Chilean general was detained during a visit to Britain because Spain and several other European countries wanted to try him for crimes allegedly committed in Chile.

Saddam Hussein is among those now being targeted by European magistrates; so is the ex-president of Iran.

But there's a problem.

"The new kind of universal jurisdiction is very much more about politics than justice," says international lawyer Lee Casey.

Casey is among the lawyers worried that Americans in particular might make attractive targets for ambitious prosecutors.

"It is a useful tool whereby you can work out political or even, frankly, personal agendas under the context or under the guise of law," he says.

Some claim that's what is behind the sudden interest in former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who was in Paris last spring when a French judge sought him for questioning. Kissinger decided to leave town.

The idea behind universal jurisdiction is that evildoers should have no safe havens; the concern is that the long arm of the law might be over-reaching.

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