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Yugoslavia: War Crimes Tribunal Beginning Work In Kosovo

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Prague, 15 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague is beginning a major operation in Kosovo aimed at establishing what war crimes have been committed there, and by whom.

The tribunal is now assembling a series of teams drawn from many countries to sift through forensic evidence, for instance, at alleged mass grave sites in the province, and to collect testimony from witnesses. The scale and speed of the international effort to bring to justice the perpetrators of atrocities in Kosovo is unprecedented.

In all, some 300 to 350 experts will eventually be involved in the field work, which is expected to take months. A 25-member team from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is ready to begin work, British experts are in the region, and teams from Norway, Canada, France, Germany, and elsewhere are expected to join them soon.

The tribunal, based in the Netherlands' administrative capital The Hague, will coordinate the work of all these experts by appointing one of its own investigators to supervise each team.

Using the tribunal's office in the Macedonian capital Skopje as a base, the teams will fan out across Kosovo as Yugoslav armed forces progressively withdraw and the province is brought under the control of NATO peacekeeping troops. Cooperation with the NATO troops is essential. Tribunal spokesman Jim Landale told RFE/RL that the troops are needed to guard sites, and to inspect the areas for mines, unexploded munitions and booby traps. And he says speed is essential:

"We are almost there, we have got people on the ground at the moment, really paving the way for the arrival of the teams, and as soon as they can get on the ground they will do so, and we will try to get to the crime sites, such as mass graves, before they are disturbed."

In general, the tribunal is seeking to minimise the advance publicity given to its investigations, so as to lower the risk that sites will be tampered with by those with something to hide. However, it is already known that sites around six towns and villages will be investigated for possible atrocities, because they are named in the tribunal's indictment of Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic on war crimes charges. The towns include Racak, Izbica, Djakovica, and Crkolez.

For months now, tribunal investigators have been collecting testimony from ethnic Albanian refugees in Albania and Macedonia who claim to have witnessed atrocities in Kosovo. Now, as NATO's peacekeeping force advances, the collection of physical evidence becomes possible. Already, the peacekeepers have discovered sites which could be linked to massacres. The British have located three grave sites in the southern village of Kacanik, and the Germans two sites near the town of Prizren.

Collecting the physical evidence is of course difficult and painstaking, but an even more difficult part of the investigation is assigning responsibility for the atrocities. That has to be pieced together through a range of sources, including witnesses, and relatives of those killed. In the case of suspected army or paramilitary involvement, intelligence sources can help establish which military units were in the area at the time, and who was in control of those units. Landale says that in this direction, the tribunal has been receiving good cooperation from the intelligence services of various governments. He says chief prosecutor Louise Arbour of Canada is determined to pursue such military offenders:

"She intends to aim as high up the chain of command as she possibly can, and to do that she really needs to establish not only the crime base, and talk to refugees, and get the physical evidence on the ground, but also to get information that would prove the chain of command and command responsibility."

But the tribunal is at pains to point out that the investigation will be fair, and that the proceedings will be conducted only on the principles firmly established under international law:

"The standards required of the prosecutor are very high indeed, there are very high thresholds for her even to get an indictment, that is, to get the charges confirmed, by an independent judge."

The process is that once the prosecution feels there is enough evidence to support charges against an individual, it will forward that evidence to a judge at the tribunal, who will then examine it and decide whether there is enough substance in the charges to carry on with proceedings. If the judge decides that substance is lacking, he will reject the charges.

However, if an indictment is confirmed then it is up to the authorities in the country where the suspect is residing to arrest him and deliver him to the custody of the tribunal.

In the case of the Yugoslav federal authorities, the tribunal complains there was long a lack of cooperation from them, and this has now become "blatant obstructionism," particularly in the case of Kosovo. In view of this, the tribunal says it is pleased with the recent UN Security Council resolution instructing the international peacekeeping force in Kosovo to give the tribunal every assistance in its investigations.

The tribunal of course is basing its present work on the similar investigations it carried out in Bosnia and Croatia. The singular advantage in Kosovo, however, is that the tribunal's experts are gaining access to physical sites much more rapidly than during that earlier conflict, so evidence is fresher and hopefully has been subjected to less disturbance.