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UN: The Hague Court Celebrates Milosevic Milestone, But Is It Up To The Task?

  • Mark Baker

The recent transfer of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic to the UN's war crimes tribunal in The Hague is an important milestone for the court. The trial of Milosevic, the first head of state to appear before the court, will add prestige and legitimacy to the body. But it will also invite closer scrutiny of the tribunal's work and place enormous pressure on prosecutors and judges to get the case right. RFE/RL correspondent Mark Baker spoke with tribunal personnel, former employees, and analysts to assess what the trial means for the court as an institution.

Prague, 13 July 2001 (RFE/RL) -- "I consider this tribunal [to be] a false tribunal and indictments [to be] false indictments. It is illegal, being not appointed by [the] UN General Assembly, so I have no need to appoint counsel to [an] illegal organ."

Those are the words of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, appearing earlier this month in front of the UN's The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

The proceedings lasted only 12 minutes, but for the tribunal the simple fact of Milosevic's appearance and coming trial mark a major milestone in its eight-year existence.

Tribunal spokesman James Landau tells RFE/RL:

"This is a very important [moment] in the history of this institution. This tribunal was not set up to investigate and prosecute every single individual who might have committed a crime on the territory of the former Yugoslavia since 1991. It was, as prosecutors have pointed out on numerous occasions, set up to focus on the architects and the masterminds -- the senior commanders."

The Milosevic trial certainly conveys prestige, but the question remains whether the tribunal, which until now has mostly dealt with relatively low-level criminals, is up to the task. The stakes riding on a successful conviction are high, given Milosevic's role not only in Kosovo but also in the wars in Bosnia and Croatia.

Terry Bowers, a U.S. lawyer who now teaches international law at the University of California in Los Angeles (UCLA), was one of the tribunal's first legal advisers, moving to The Hague in 1994. He sums it up this way:

"Because of the enormity of the allegations against Milosevic and because of his key role, it really is a case that puts a lot of pressure on the office of the prosecutor, and they have to make an excellent showing."

He denies that the Milosevic case is a "must win" for the tribunal, but he does admit that at a minimum the prosecution must put forward a first-rate presentation and avoid procedural errors:

"At the very least there has to be a comprehensive, credible professional presentation. That's your first goal, obviously. And then you're always hoping for the 'guilty' verdict. [As a prosecutor,] you wouldn't pursue the charges if you didn't think they were valid. Sometimes there are technical legal defenses that may derail the prosecution. You want to make sure that it's not the result of any prosecutorial misconduct."

People inside and outside of the tribunal say the body has come a long way since its creation by the UN Security Council in 1993 as an ad hoc court placed above national jurisdictions. When the tribunal started operating the following year, the prosecutor's office employed fewer than 20 people. There were not even enough chairs for everyone to sit down.

Nina Bang-Jensen of the non-governmental Coalition for International Justice says the court was essentially created from nothing. She describes some of the early problems:

"[One] has to keep in mind that in 1993, there was nothing in The Hague. There was an insurance company where [the tribunal is now]. There was no prosecutor for 14 or 15 months. They were recruiting people from all over the world. There were all sorts of standard UN problems, [such as] slow hiring, cumbersome bureaucracy. For quite an early part of their history, they had very few people in custody. They had no police force. They were combining a common-law and a civil-law system. They had judges from all over the world."

The tribunal now employs several hundred people and the number of attorneys and investigators has grown appreciably. But the court's work still comes in for occasional strong criticism.

"The Washington Post" this month printed a commentary by a former law clerk at the tribunal, Jenny Martinez. In the commentary, Martinez, who is now a lawyer working in Washington, questioned whether the UN is getting good value for its money since the tribunal, she says, consumes almost 10 percent of the UN's total operating budget. She also criticized the tribunal for permitting lengthy pre-trial detentions and for conducting trials that, as she puts it, "meander." She says the tribunal has come embarrassingly close to violating human rights norms on speedy trials.

While people familiar with the tribunal concede Martinez raises valid points, they defend the tribunal and point to the difficulties involved in running any international organization.

Clint Williamson, a former prosecutor at the tribunal and a co-author of the Milosevic indictment, notes that even lawyers from the former Yugoslavia who witness the hearings are generally impressed by the level of fairness:

"The lawyers that have come even from the former Yugoslavia -- most of them, although they may be critical of the tribunal for being what they see as politically driven, very few of them have been critical of the way the tribunal conducts itself."

Much will depend ultimately on the strength of the tribunal's case against Milosevic. While those familiar with the evidence say some elements of a clear paper trail linking Milosevic to war crimes in Kosovo are missing, they say they are confident of gaining a conviction.

Williamson -- who had knowledge of the evidence in 1999 when he co-wrote the indictment -- says the case was ready for trial then. The two years since then, he says, have only given prosecutors time to strengthen their arguments.

"I think it's an extremely strong case. It was strong at the time it was indicted. The internal process for confirmation for indictments is very rigorous."

Tribunal spokesman Landau says the court is ready for the big show. He says he understands and welcomes the scrutiny that will accompany the Milosevic trial.

"Certainly, and probably quite rightly, we will be under enormous scrutiny when this trial takes place. What is important, above anything else, is that it is a transparent trial that is seen to be fair and expeditious. And it will be up to the prosecutor to prove her case beyond a reasonable doubt."

Prosecutors say they hope to begin the trial sometime next year, and that it could last a year or longer. Much, they say, will depend on whether alleged war crimes committed in Bosnia and Croatia are included or treated in a separate proceeding. The court has said that it plans to indict Milosevic for activities in Bosnia and Croatia, but it has not said when it will do so.