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Yugoslavia: War Crimes Tribunals Prove Effective

  • Kitty McKinsey

The Hague, 13 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- When Dusan Tadic became the first man to go on trial before the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague two years ago, hundreds of journalists showed up to cover the first few days of his trial in great detail.

So high was the interest that tickets were awarded to journalists by lottery. The vast majority had to watch the proceedings on closed-circuit television outside the heavily-guarded tribunal building.

When Zoran Zigic became the 31st man to be remanded before the tribunal at the end of last month, only a handful of reporters was present.

The lack of interest from the world's media was a measure of how relatively commonplace these war crimes trials have become. The tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has so many people in custody that it has run out of room in its 24-cell detention center, and each individual accused no longer attracts much attention.

There are two UN war crimes tribunals set up by the UN -- the one for former Yugoslavia in The Hague and the one for Rwanda headquartered in Arusha, Tanzania. Both have in custody many of the people they have indicted on charges of war genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Both are attracting world support, and the pace of their trials -- especially in the Yugoslav tribunal -- has increased in the last six to nine months. Both tribunals have been transformed from toothless bodies into quiet successes. Neil Kritz, a scholar at the U. S. government-funded Institute of Peace in Washington, D.C., says that "both tribunals have made enormous strides in their work . . . as well as in international support and assistance for that work. I believe they have really turned the corner in both instances."

William Pace, head of the U.S.-based NGO Coalition for an International Criminal Court which brings together more than 800 separate groups, says the big accomplishment of the two tribunals is that "for the first time in 50 years since Nuremberg the world community has finally acted again to create an international jurisdiction to hold individuals responsible for the violations of the international crimes."

The Hague tribunal for the former Yugoslavia seeks to bring to justice those responsible for the Bosnian Serbs' policy of "ethnic cleansing" (driving all non-Serbs out of territory they coveted), for their slaughter of an estimated 7,000 men in Srebrenica and the deliberate sniping at civilians in Sarajevo. The tribunal also seeks to bring to justice those responsible for the running of prison camps by all sides.

A number of suspects wanted by The Hague tribunal have recently been captured or turned themselves in. (Of the total of 31 who have landed in The Hague, 25 remain in custody with one who is in ill health on bail in Republika Srpska with a promise to return for trial. One innocent man was released because he had been mistaken for a real suspect; charges were dismissed against three men, and one died.) Thirteen trials are in progress. Public indictments have been issued against 74 men, and there are a number of sealed indictments.

The Rwanda tribunal is seeking to judge and punish those responsible for genocide of an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus during a three-month rampage in the summer of 1994.

In Arusha, one of the chief architects of the Rwanda genocide of 1994 -- former prime minister Jean Kambanda -- recently pleaded guilty to six charges, including genocide and crimes against humanity. He was the first senior figure in the ousted Hutu regime to accept that genocide had occurred and to admit his own leading role in the slaughters.

Tribunal registrar Agwu Okali said the tribunal had "turned a certain psychological corner with the plea of guilty." The tribunal, established in November, 1994, has otherwise yet to complete a trial.

American judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald, who is president of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, says the tribunal in The Hague has accomplished a great deal.

It has created an international criminal institution that is the first of its kind. Ever since the Nuremberg war crimes trials at the end of World War II, where the chief surviving Nazi leaders were judged, there has been talk of establishing a permanent international court. As Judge McDonald puts it: "We have taken a dream, an idea and aspiration and made it a reality."

Christopher Hall, legal advisor to human rights group Amnesty International in London says that perhaps the most important contribution of the two tribunals is establishing that crimes committed during internal conflicts also carry with them criminal responsibility. He says that is important because the overwhelming majority of conflicts in the world today are internal -- not traditional wars between states.

There are big differences between the two tribunals. The Rwanda tribunal has a greater percentage of indictees in custody, including the top architects, organizers and generals of the genocide. Some connected with the tribunal say that it has so-called "big fish" in custody -- a term Chief Prosecutor Louise Arbour says she "profoundly detests."

In addition to those before the UN tribunal for Rwanda, the country itself has a staggering 130,000 suspects in custody on charges related to the genocide. Estimates are that it would take 400 years to hold trials for all of them.

The architects of Bosnia's "ethnic cleansing" -- the Bosnian Serbs' own name for what the tribunal has labeled genocide -- have so far eluded the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal.

Only three of the suspects before the Yugoslav tribunal can be considered high-ranking -- the Bosnian Croat war crimes suspect Dario Kordic, Bosnian Croat General Tihomir Blaskic, and a Bosnian Serb regional wartime leader Milan Kovacevic.

But Justice Arbour, who is chief prosecutor for both the Yugoslav and the Rwanda tribunals, says the situations in the two countries were different, and so are the indictees. In Rwanda there was no middle-level authority such as the men who ran prison camps for civilians during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Arbour says that prosecutors for the Yugoslav tribunal have to go after people who may not have been at the top levels of political or military authority, but who still had authority over people who were committing what she calls "absolutely intolerable atrocities." This includes camp commanders like Tadic, who was convicted last year of 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 20 years' imprisonment.

Nevertheless, Arbour says the prosecution in the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal is now concentrating more on those at the highest levels.

This brings up the obvious question of whether the tribunal's most-wanted suspects, the Bosnian Serbs' former political and military leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, will ever face trial on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.

Arbour will not predict when Karadzic and Mladic will be captured or surrender to the tribunal. But she says "there's every reason to be very confident" that they will eventually face trial.

Arbour's predecessor, South African Judge Richard Goldstone, recently said the Yugoslav tribunal can not be considered a success unless it tries Karadzic and Mladic.

Arbour and McDonald, speaking in interviews with RFE/RL, rejected this viewpoint. But Arbour did agree that it would be "tragic" if those two suspects escape justice.

However, Judge McDonald says the Yugoslav tribunal has already proved a success.

She puts it this way: "We have developed a major important international criminal judicial institution. We have demonstrated that you can try on the international level persons charged with crimes. . . And, I believe, provide a fair trial. And I think that's a success right there."

Pace of the NGO Coalition agrees: "Any time that the rule of law and justice moves forward and replaces brute force and violence and war as ways in which communities deal with each other, it is an advance for civilization."