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UN: Yugoslav And Tribunal Officials Discuss Reducing War Crimes Caseloads

  • Robert McMahon

Eight years after it assumed responsibility for indicting and trying those accused of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has signaled an interest in referring a number of cases back to national courts in that region. But they say any such moves are still years away and they remain concerned at the high number of indicted war criminals still at large.

United Nations, 28 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- The president and chief prosecutor of the UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia have presented -- for the first time -- plans to transfer some of their cases to national courts.

The plans reflect the political changes that have accelerated reforms throughout the former Yugoslavia in the past year. But the UN officials -- tribunal president Claude Jorda and chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte -- stress it will be years before local courts will be able to properly adjudicate war crimes cases.

Jorda and Del Ponte yesterday (27 November) presented the Yugoslav court's annual report to the UN Security Council, which created the ad hoc Yugoslav tribunal eight years ago. Both acknowledged the need for the court to quicken its processing of war crimes cases. They said they will focus on the suspected war criminals of the highest political and military rank. They also said as many as 15 new cases of lower-ranking officials could be handled by national courts. But Jorda told the council that for such a transfer of authority to happen, extensive international assistance to local courts would be required.

"For it to be possible to relocate cases of lesser importance for the tribunal, the judicial systems of the states of the former Yugoslavia must be reconstructed on democratic foundations. The national courts must be in a position to accomplish their work with total independence and impartiality and with due regard for the principles governing international humanitarian law and the protection of human rights."

The UN tribunal in The Hague has tried 31 individuals so far, with 26 found guilty of war crimes. Many of them are appealing. Another 50 accused individuals are in custody. Twenty-eight indicted suspects remain at large in the former Yugoslavia.

Del Ponte told the council that overall, her office has remaining investigations involving 150 accused war criminals from the former Yugoslavia. She said this focuses on the worst massacres occurring in the region including, most recently, Macedonia.

But Del Ponte said that in Yugoslavia, as in Rwanda -- where she is prosecuting cases linked to the 1994 genocide -- it is wrong to believe that atrocities were committed by a small group of individuals.

"We have established that both the genocide in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia were highly organized criminal enterprises -- centrally organized at the highest level and pursued with enthusiasm at the regional and local levels."

Del Ponte said in the former Yugoslavia, a number of individuals involved in carrying out wide-scale ethnic cleansing still hold official positions and have obstructed the peace and reconciliation process.

She urged the council in particular to press for the arrest of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic. Both have been indicted for their role in the 1995 massacre of an estimated 7,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica.

Karadzic is believed to be living in Bosnia's Serb entity -- Republika Srpska -- and contributing to extremist sentiment there. Del Ponte yesterday presented the council with new information on the whereabouts of Mladic.

"I regret to inform the Council that Ratko Mladic is residing in the [Federal Republic of Yugoslavia] under the official protection of the Yugoslav army. As an officer of the Yugoslav army, General Mladic is said to enjoy military immunity and he is being shielded from both national and international justice."

Yugoslavia's interior minister later rejected Del Ponte's accusations. Zoran Zivkovic said last night Mladic is not on Yugoslav territory and, to the best of his knowledge, is not under the protection of the Yugoslav army. Zivkovic said if Del Ponte knows where Mladic is in Yugoslavia, she "should say where the army is guarding him so the army and everyone else can respond."

In her remarks to the council, Del Ponte also harshly criticized Yugoslav federal authorities for failing to cooperate with the tribunal. She applauded leaders of Serbia for handing over indicted former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic for trial earlier this year. But she said Yugoslav authorities have actively sought to disrupt any further cooperation between Serbia and The Hague. She said she sees no effort on the part of Yugoslav officials to enact an internal law that would permit cooperation with the war crimes tribunal.

Yugoslavia's ambassador to the UN, Dejan Sahovic, told the council he expected the law formalizing cooperation with the tribunal to be adopted soon. He said his government was committed to fulfilling its responsibilities in relation to the tribunal, but he appealed for patience.

"Cooperation with the [war crimes tribunal] is a process and it should be understood as such. If we look back at the last 12 months, we will see significant improvement. I am confident that in the coming period it will improve further."

Del Ponte also faulted Croatia for not apprehending indicted war criminal General Ante Gotovina, despite assurances from the government. But she paid tribute to the decision by the Bosnian government to transfer four senior Bosnian Muslim military officials to The Hague for trial.

Bosnia's ambassador to the UN, Mirza Kusljugic, told the council the war crimes tribunal has already had a strong positive impact on the lives of many Bosnians.

"Each just decision of the ICTY helps in some way to lessen the pain and suffering of the war crimes victims and their families. Let us never forget the atrocities were committed in Bosnia-Herzegovina -- mass murder, mass rape, ethnic cleansing, and even the genocide, proven for the first time after World War II in Europe."

The Bosnian ambassador said, in particular, the actions of the tribunal were influencing the return of refugees to the country, advancing interethnic reconciliation, and helping in the economic and political transition underway.

Both Del Ponte and tribunal president Jorda said Bosnia should develop -- with international assistance -- a special court to try war crimes cases referred by the tribunal. Del Ponte said if work on such a court began immediately, it could be up and running in Bosnia by the year 2004.