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UN: U.S. Defends Diplomat's Criticism Of War Crimes Courts

  • Andrew Tully

European officials and nongovernmental organizations are taking issue with recent U.S. criticism of the international criminal tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. They say the complaints give the impression that the courts are not independent. Some also suggest that the criticism is related to U.S. opposition to the UN's plan to set up a permanent International Criminal Court.

Washington, 4 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The administration of U.S. President George W. Bush is defending recent criticism its highest-ranking war crimes official made about the tribunals hearing cases involving Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Testifying last week before the U.S. House of Representatives International Relations Committee, Pierre-Richard Prosper complained that both tribunals have trouble with corruption and mismanagement. He is America's ambassador at large for war crimes issues. Prosper also said the Bush administration hopes the two tribunals finish their work by 2007 or 2008.

The U.S. government moved immediately to elaborate on Prosper's testimony before Congress. During the daily State Department briefing, held just hours after Prosper spoke, chief spokesman Richard Boucher was asked about the ambassador's statements.

Boucher made a point of saying Washington has the highest regard for the tribunals. He added that the U.S. only wants to see that they complete their work in a timely fashion.

"The timetable is to be set by the tribunal, but the goal is to take care of the cases that they have to take care of. If you look back in history, there have been tribunals that have been established, done their work, done very important work, and then finished. So the goal is to finish. It's to prosecute everybody who needs to be prosecuted."

The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has indicted more than 80 people on war crimes charges related to the violent breakup of Yugoslavia during the 1990s. Thirty-one have been tried and the cases of 12 -- including former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic -- are now being heard.

In Arusha, Tanzania, a separate tribunal has indicted more than 70 people on charges related to the war in Rwanda. The cases of nine have been disposed of, and 17 are now on trial.

Critics say the Rwanda tribunal is slow and often inept. On the Yugoslav tribunal, critics say that the court has focused too much on low-level suspects and not on top decision-makers. They note that these include Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb political leader, and Karadzic's military chief, Ratko Mladic.

Critics also point to the expense of the tribunals and alleged incidents of corruption.

In his congressional testimony last week, Prosper gave few details about what he called problems with corruption. He did cite instances in which defense lawyers split their fees -- paid by the UN -- with the families of the defendants.

But the American diplomat was emphatic that the U.S. administration hopes the tribunals have finished their work by 2007 or 2008. He said the tribunals should focus on major human rights violators, not those accused of minor transgressions.

On 1 March, Peter Schieder, president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, called Prosper's statements "unacceptable" interference in the work of the tribunals, which are meant to be independent of any government influence.

This view was echoed by Richard Dicker, the director of the International Justice Program at the advocacy group Human Rights Watch. Dicker told RFE/RL that Prosper's statement actually helps Milosevic's case.

"One of Slobodan Milosevic's principal charges against the Yugoslav court is that it's an appendage of U.S. policy. So, for the U.S. war crimes ambassador to attempt to dictate a closing date for an independent international court suggests that perhaps Milosevic is right."

Dicker says he is baffled by Prosper's emphasis on ending the tribunals by 2007 or 2008 because Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor for The Hague tribunal, already has said she hopes to conclude her work by then.

And Dicker says the U.S. ambassador misrepresented the tribunals with his accusation of corruption that centered on some defense lawyers' practice of splitting their fees with the defendants' families. He says that indicates not corruption in the UN courts, but the families' pressure on defense lawyers.

According to Dicker, Prosper's complaints may be tied to the Bush administration's opposition to a permanent International Criminal Court (ICC). "One could easily see the connection between the effort to undermine the legitimacy of the Yugoslav and Rwanda tribunals as laying the groundwork for a serious attack and criticism and denunciation of the permanent International Criminal Court."

The United Nations is in the process of setting up the ICC -- a permanent court that would be ready to handle cases like those arising from the Yugoslav and Rwandan conflicts.

Some American political leaders -- including Bush -- oppose the idea of a permanent court. They say the U.S. is likely to be a constant target of opponents in unfriendly countries and that these opponents could bring indictments against American troops or even government officials for political reasons alone. Bush has said he will not ask the Senate to ratify the ICC while he is president, which could be through 2008.

One prominent American opponent of the ICC is Republican Senator Jesse Helms, who until a year ago was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Helms, however, supports ad hoc tribunals. He argues that trials for war crimes and genocide are not conducted every day, and therefore the courts needed to hear such cases do not have to be established permanently. He also contends that ad hoc courts are better focused on the issues at hand, and that they usually have high standards for evidence.

The senator's chief of staff, Patricia McNerny, summed up Helms's feelings in an interview with RFE/RL: "The [ICC] is overbroad in its reach, and it's not restrictive enough in terms of the authority of the prosecutor. Basically you could have politicized prosecutions. And you certainly -- unlike the ad hoc tribunal where we have a discrete topic and a discrete set of cases that has gone and been approved by the [UN] Security Council -- in this case you have individuals within the court making the decisions on who, when, where to prosecute."

Supporters of a permanent international tribunal like the ICC counter that America, as well as its military and political officials, would stand to gain.

Heather Hamilton is the director of programs for the World Federalist Association, an independent, nonprofit advocacy group that explores ways of ending genocide. She says the U.S. would benefit from a more concerted action to punish international "bad guys."

"It's in [the U.S.] foreign policy interest to see that the real bad guys -- the people who commit these mass atrocities that the court is actually set up to go after -- are put in jail. It makes our [U.S.] troops safer, it makes our world safer. Putting Slobodan Milosevic behind bars -- that's a really good thing, and that's what this court is set up to do."

Meanwhile, Helms has several times inserted amendments into Senate legislation that would exempt the U.S. and its citizens from the ICC, if it comes into being. These amendments have so far been removed from the bills before they could be voted on by the full Congress.

The ICC cannot be set up until 60 nations formally ratify the Rome Statute, a UN document that would create it. So far, 52 nations have done so, and observers say the eight remaining countries needed likely will ratify by early next year. But without U.S. support, most of these observers say they fear that the ICC will lack the legitimacy it needs to bring war criminals to justice.

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