The Hague, May 14 (RFE/RL) - When will Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic and Bosnian Serb military commander General Ratko Mladic stand trial for war crimes?
That longstanding question was raised with new urgency last week with the start of the first trial before the UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
The man on trial -- a 40-year-old Bosnian Serb named Dusan Tadic -- is a relatively low-level figure in the Bosnian Serbs' vicious scheme of "ethnic cleansing," a campaign of murder, rape and torture to drive out all non-Serbs from land the Bosnian Serbs coveted. Tadic's lawyer , Michail Wladimiroff, criticized the tribunal for prosecuting only those suspects who fell into its hands -- like Tadic -- instead of going after the top people who started the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
The criticism was echoed by Richard Dicker, associate counsel for Human Rights Watch, who attended Tadic's trial last week. Dicker complained: "Why are they trying Mr. Tadic? He is a small fish and the big fish are at liberty and slipping under the noses of the IFOR soldiers who have an obligation . . . to arest them." (He was referring to the NATO-led peace implementation force in Bosnia, know by the acronym IFOR).
Such criticism is angrily rejected by tribunal spokesman Christian Chartier, who asked: "Should we release Tadic because Karadzic and Mladic are not here?"
Dicker agrees that Tadic should be on trial. There is, he says, enough evidence to support Tadic's indictment on 31 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity allegedly commited in and around three notorious Bosnian Serb concentration camps in northeastern Bosia in the summer of 1992.
But Dicker hopes the trial will increase pressure on Western governments with forces in Bosnia -- including the U.S., Great Britain and France -- to arrest Karadzic and Mladic, both of whom have been indicted by the tribunal on war crimes charges. Both are charged with genocide for the slaughter of up to 6,000 Muslim civilians in the Srebrenica enclave. They are charged separately for the siege of Sarajevo and the use of UN peacekeepers as human shields.
The fact that Karadzic and Mladic continue to move freely around Bosnian Serb territory -- Karadzic recently declared he wants to run in September's elections in violation of the Dayton Peace Accords -- emphasize the very limited powers of the tribunal. It cannot try suspects in absentia, and must rely on IFOR -- or national governments -- to arrest suspects.
Dicker, at the Human Rights Watch, says the tribunal is like a human being without arms or legs -- "it can't do anything for itself."
IFOR commanders have made it clear they will not actively pursue suspected war criminals -- neither Karadzic and Mladic, nor lower-level suspects. They have promised to arrest the men if they happen to cross paths with IFOR soldiers who recognize them. But Dicker says that the failure to take more decisive action is "an abdication of responsibility that flies in the face of the spirit and letter of the Dayton Accords" that halted the 43-month war in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Antonio Cassese, president of the tribunal, recently gave vent to the tribunal's frustration that Karadzic and Mladic continue to hold powerful possitions in Republika Srpska (the Serb half of Bosnia) and that they continue to elude capture. Speaking last month to the Council of Europe's parliamentary assembly, Cassese called for the reimposition of UN economic sanctions against Serbia and Republika Srpska if they do not soon turn over war crimes suspects to the tribunal.
But Chartier disputes the emphasis placed on Karadzic and Mladic. The tribunal, he says, has indicted 57 suspects -- "and we want all of them." He says the credibility of the tribunal lies not in the quality of the suspects on trial, but on the quality of the judges and the fairness of the proceedings.
And he says the tribunal is having more success in getting its hands on suspects. Six months ago, Tadic was the only one in custody. Today the number is seven -- including those actually in prison near The Hague and those in jail in other countries awaiting transfer to the Netherlands.
And Chartier counts as a major success the recent arrest by the mainly-Muslim government of Bosnia Herzegovina of two Muslim suspects. Says Chartier: "The fact that the two were arrested by Bosnia-Herzegovina is a major move, a watershed." He says this action may help prove to the Bosnian Serbs and their political masters in Serbia that the tribunal is not -- as they maintain -- anti-Serb.
And as for Karadzic and Mladic, Chartier says the chances that they will be arrested are improving. As he puts it, "International pressure is stepping up."