Accessibility links

UN: Tribunal Presses For Cooperation In Capturing War Criminals

  • Robert McMahon

Leading officials of the UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia are in New York this week to press for more cooperation, particularly in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Croatia, in apprehending alleged war criminals. They are also urging again that former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic be arrested and tried in The Hague. Tribunal officials say impunity for Milosevic and other indicted war criminals will continue to destabilize the Balkans.

United Nations, 22 November 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Chief officials of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia have raised new concerns that Yugoslav successor states are failing to meet their commitments on assisting war crimes investigations.

The tribunal's president, Claude Jorda, and chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, told the UN Security Council yesterday (Tuesday) that high-ranking military and political officials accused of war crimes remain at large.

Del Ponte repeated her concern that former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic -- indicted for war crimes in Kosovo -- would be allowed to escape prosecution. Six weeks after losing the presidency, Milosevic has emerged as the main candidate for president of Serbia's Socialist Party.

The war crimes prosecutor said there would be a grave impact on Yugoslavia if there were any deals to protect Milosevic from prosecution.

"Given the enormous residual power and continuing influence of the hardliners in Belgrade, it would be inconceivable to allow Milosevic to walk away from the consequences of his actions."

Del Ponte said she plans to meet soon with Yugoslavia's new president Vojislav Kostunica to discuss handing over Milosevic for trial. Kostunica is allowing the tribunal to set up offices in Belgrade but has not shifted from his position that cooperation with the war crimes investigations are a low priority for his government.

The comments from Del Ponte and Jorda follow calls this autumn by UN officials for a new sense of urgency in apprehending war criminals. Jorda said the suspected at-large war criminals are a danger to international public order.

He urged the Security Council to use its influence on states of the former Yugoslavia to hand over to the tribunal the accused in their territory.

"It is imperative to act rapidly since nationalism in its most virulent form is still alive and could yet compromise the demanding and sometimes painful exercise of justice, failing which there can be no deep-rooted and lasting peace in the Balkans."

The UN tribunal, established in 1993, has convicted 14 Bosnian Serbs, Muslims and Croats, and has 38 accused in custody pending trials. The tribunal's activities to date have focused on crimes in Bosnia.

One recent case involves charges against three Bosnian Serbs accused of sexually enslaving and torturing Bosnian Muslim women in the Bosnian city of Foca. Another trial underway involves Dario Kordic, a former senior Bosnian Croat political leader who is accused of conducting a campaign of ethnic cleansing against Muslims in central Bosnia.

Early next year, the prosecution will begin its case against Momcilo Krajisnik, the one-time Bosnian Serb member of the collective presidency. It will be the first case to explore the responsibility of high-level Bosnian-Serb leadership in war crimes.

Despite the tribunal's heavy trial load, del Ponte on Tuesday was highly critical of the international community and Croat officials for a slowdown in pursuing indicted war criminals.

She said, for instance, that Croat officials have refused to provide access to witnesses and documents that are key to investigating the 1995 campaign against Serbs in Croatia. Yugoslav officials have repeatedly accused the Croats of ethnic cleansing in that campaign.

In Bosnia, the prosecutor said there have been no detentions of suspected war criminals since June. She said international forces in Bosnia have shown a lack of resolve in pursuing suspects and alleged that this contributed to the strong showing of nationalist parties in the recent Bosnian elections.

"A wrong message was sent, both to people and the politicians of Bosnia: namely, that criminal nationalism and its promoters are and shall remain beyond the reach of justice and the threatening words of the international community are just that, words."

Del Ponte also responded sharply to Russia's recent criticism of the tribunal. Russia has repeatedly blasted the court for being biased against Serbs, of improperly issuing sealed indictments and of failing to carry out a proper investigation of NATO's bombing campaign in Yugoslavia last year.

The prosecutor called the allegations "offensive" and groundless.

But Russia's ambassador to the United Nations, Sergei Lavrov, speaking later, repeated the charges. He said the tribunal has failed to act an independent entity since its founding in 1993.

"Instead, from the beginning, the tribunal's activities were politicized and it adopted a clear anti-Serbian stance."

There was general agreement among Council members on steps to ease the workload of the tribunal. Council representatives approved Jorda's recommendations to create a pool of judges from UN member states to help out with the court's case load when needed. This would require an amendment to the tribunal's statutes.

But there was a mixed reaction to other proposals, including a compensation fund for victims of war crimes. Del Ponte had also requested an extension of the tribunal's jurisdiction to include crimes against humanity committed in Kosovo after the deployment of KFOR troops. She referred in particular to allegations of ethnic cleansing against minority Serbs and Roma in Kosovo.

But the deputy U.S. ambassador to the UN, James Cunningham, rejected the proposal to extend the court's mandate, saying there were other mechanisms to handle such claims.