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World: International Justice -- Rwandan And Yugoslav Tribunals (Part 2)

  • Daisy Sindelar

The UN-established international criminal tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia (ICTR and ICTY) are widely seen as test cases for future international justice systems. And despite a number of high-profile successes -- most notably the indictment and extradition of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic -- the UN tribunals have drawn praise and criticism in equal measure. RFE/RL correspondent Daisy Sindelar looks at the two landmark tribunals.

Prague, 4 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- On 25 May 1993, the United Nations Security Council passed Resolution 827, establishing the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

The international tribunal, based in the Dutch city of The Hague, was meant to do what domestic courts could not: to prosecute, in a professional and neutral atmosphere, those accused of severe violations of humanitarian law on the territory of the former Yugoslavia since 1991.

The violations included breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity. Simply put, they represented one of the most bitter civil conflicts of the 20th century, with more than 200,000 people killed and some 2 million forced from their homes.

Eighteen months later (in November 1994), the Security Council adopted a second resolution creating the Rwanda tribunal, tasked with prosecuting those responsible for the 1994 slaughter of an estimated 800,000 people -- mainly minority Tutsis and moderate Hutus -- in and around the African state.

Together, the tribunals represented a turning point in international accountability. Not since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials following World War II had humanitarian crimes of such scope been subjected to universal scrutiny.

As such, they represented what Nina Bang-Jensen of the non-governmental Coalition for International Justice describes as an "experiment" in international law. They also were a chance, she says, for the UN to make amends for what many saw as its failure to prevent the Balkan and Rwandan tragedies from happening in the first place:

"[The tribunals were created] partly out of the world's frustration -- or embarrassment -- that it did not do more while these things were happening. Certainly, the UN was involved and on the ground in both cases, and yet the member states of the UN did not act, did not act [sufficiently] to prevent these horrific tragedies."

Although it is doubtful the ICTY and ICTR "experiments" will be repeated in their precise formats, they have laid the groundwork for a future where crimes against humanity will not go unrecognized or unpunished by the world community. Work has already begun to create similar tribunals for Cambodia, East Timor, and Sierra Leone. The creation of an International Criminal Court may follow as well.

The tribunals, which have drawn criticism for their sluggish pace and perceived Western bias, continue to set legal precedents and make headlines around the world -- most recently for the detention of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who had become the first sitting head of government to be indicted by an international tribunal (the indictment was issued 24 May 1999).

Bang-Jensen, who ascribes the tribunals' relatively slow progress to "unavoidable" UN-style bureaucracy, says the fact that the courts are functioning at all is, itself, an accomplishment:

"The particular success is that they're actually up and running and working and conducting fundamentally fair trials. After all, in 1993 [in The Hague], there was just an old insurance building, no employees, and a Security Council resolution. There had never been an international criminal tribunal before. Nuremberg and Tokyo were antecedents, but they were not truly international tribunals."

Bruce Broomhall is the director of the International Justice Program for the U.S.-based Lawyers Committee for Human Rights, which advocates the establishment of an International Criminal Court. He says one of the tribunals' key contributions to date has been proving the importance of creating permanent international legal systems like the ICC:

"When the Yugoslav tribunal was established on 1993, I don't think anybody understood that they would be eventually arresting Milosevic for crimes in Kosovo in 1999. They thought this was a court for the civil war in the immediate period of 1993-1995. They didn't envision it being in place to cover these crimes way down the road. But it did."

The reason it did, he explains, is because the institution -- staff, facilities, and investigative capacity -- were already in place. If it had been necessary to create a separate ad-hoc court for Kosovo, Broomhall says, the outcome may have been entirely different:

"If they had tried to set up an ad-hoc court for Kosovo, the Russians would have vetoed it in the Security Council, and Milosevic might [still] be president or would certainly be within the territory of Yugoslavia today."

The ICTY may have a higher profile than its Rwandan counterpart, but Bang-Jensen says it is actually the ICTR that has a better record of getting higher-level officials into custody and tried.

Headquartered in Arusha, Tanzania -- with the prosecutor's office in Kigali, Rwanda, and sharing The Hague-based Appeals Court with the ICTY -- the tribunal is the first international court to have handed down a genocide conviction.

On 2 September 1998, the ICTR found former district Mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity, and other violations, including rape and encouraging widespread violence.

Two days later, the tribunal handed down its stiffest sentence -- life in prison -- to former Rwandan Prime Minister Jean Kambanda, marking the first international sentence for genocide, as well as the first conviction of a former head of government by an international tribunal. Akayesu eventually received a life sentence, as well. Two years later, the Appeals Court upheld the ruling.

Bang-Jensen describes the Akayesu conviction as a turning point for the Rwanda tribunal:

"Really, here was someone who was a very senior figure who was convicted of genocide. Not only was that case significant in terms of the laws that were produced, but actually there has been a pretty good effort -- belated, but a pretty good effort -- to bring the news of that judgment back to Rwanda."

Bang-Jensen's comment touches on what, for some, is a troubling aspect of the two tribunals -- the courts' isolation from the countries where the crimes took place. In addition to the logistical headaches of transporting defendants, witnesses, and evidence thousands of kilometers to the tribunals, there is the problem of bringing their final rulings back home.

Unlike domestic courts or truth and reconciliation commissions, the Rwanda and Yugoslav tribunals provide no easy guarantees that the weight of their verdicts will be felt where they are most needed -- in the countries where the crimes were committed.

Another criticism often heard of the tribunals involves their high cost. The ICTY, which began with a budget of $276,000, this year is spending upwards of $95 million. In total, the Yugoslav tribunal has spent nearly $500 million since its inception. Its achievements, by comparison, seem negligible to some -- 106 indictments and only eight convictions.

Moreover, the ICTY has failed to apprehend two of its most notorious indictees -- Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and military commander Ratko Mladic.

Indicted together on 24 July 1995, both men have managed to elude arrest -- despite reports that Karadzic was able to attend the baptism of one of his grandchildren and Mladic was spotted by a reporter from "The Washington Post" attending a Belgrade soccer match.

Bang-Jensen attributes such failures, in part, to the "irresponsibility" of the current Yugoslav and Serbian governments in refusing to cooperate with the tribunal.

The Rwanda tribunal has fewer such glaring failures, but like the ICTY, it has paid a high price for relatively few accomplishments. The ICTR -- whose 2000 budget was just under $80 million -- has made only 50 arrests and has fewer than 10 convictions. (Rwanda's domestic courts, by comparison, have already handed down more than 1,000 guilty verdicts and 370 death sentences.)

Although the Rwanda tribunal is widely expected to conclude its work over the next several years, the wide sweep of the Balkan conflict, combined with the current unrest in Macedonia, make it uncertain when -- and how many hundreds of millions of UN dollars later -- the Yugoslav tribunal will finally fulfill its mandate.

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