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Bosnia/Rwanda: Wheels Of Justice Grind Slowly At Two War Crimes Tribunals

PRAGUE, 2 MAY 1997 (RFE/RL) -- Next Wednesday the three judges of the War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague plan to announce their verdict in the first international war crimes trial since the prosecution of Nazi and Japanese leaders at the end of World War II.

The verdict in the trial against Bosnian Serb Dusan Tadic is scheduled to be delivered one year to the day after the former cafe owner and accused prison-camp torturer went on trial.

In Africa, three trials against perpetrators of massacres in Rwanda are still underway, with no verdicts yet.

The wheels of justice have been grinding slowly in the two ad hoc United Nations war crime tribunals that are operating at opposite ends of the world -- in The Hague, covering crimes committed during the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992 to 1995, and in Arusha, Tanzania, dealing with the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when as many as 800,000 people were massacred.

The tribunal for Yugoslavia was set up in 1993, in the midst of a war which was characterized by rape, murder, expulsion and persecution of civilians on the basis of their ethnicity. The Rwanda court was set up in November, 1994, only months after the genocide which saw majority Hutus slaughter minority Tutsis as well as moderate Hutus.

The main purpose of both tribunals is to render justice and to foster national reconciliation by singling out individuals for guilt and punishment, and not blaming atrocities on an entire population. The motto is individual guilt, not collective guilt.

Each tribunal has held three trials so far. The Yugoslav tribunal has 74 men under indictment, most of them Bosnian Serbs, but only eight in custody. One Bosnian Croat, Drazen Erdemovic, pleaded guilty to taking part in the massacre of Muslims in Srebrenica and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. In the third case, Muslim and Croat defendants are being tried for alleged crimes against Serbs in the Celebici detention camp. The Rwandan tribunal has 23 people under indictment, with 13 in custody.

Both tribunals have been plagued by problems, mostly the result of serious underfunding by the UN. The Rwandan tribunal does not even have enough courtrooms or jail cells.

The credibility of the Yugoslav tribunal has been called into question because all the men who are in custody are low-level operatives who -- although they may have been guilty of appalling crimes -- were not the masterminds of the horrific strategy known as ethnic cleansing.

The political and military leaders of the Bosnian Serbs throughout the war -- Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic -- have been charged with 36 counts, including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Although they have been superficially removed from the public scene in Republika Srpska -- the Serb half of Bosnia-Herzegovina -- they continue, by all accounts, to wield considerable power. They have repeatedly thumbed their noses at the NATO-led peace forces in the country, who, strangely, have orders to arrest the men only if they encounter them. They have no orders to seek out accused war criminals.

Yugoslav tribunal president Antonio Cassese has threatened to propose to the UN Security Council that the mandate for the Yugoslav tribunal be allowed to expire if indicted top and mid-level leaders are not arrested and delivered to The Hague. He says the fact that Karadzic and Mladic remain at large has made the Dayton Accords that ended the war in Bosnia, as he put it, an exercise in hypocrisy.

The Rwandan tribunal has suffered even more serious problems. A UN report earlier this year uncovered questionable accounting practices, inconsistent hiring procedures, internal feuding and poor oversight by UN headquarters in New York. The report also concluded that the administrative woes had hindered efforts to bring to justice those responsible for the Rwandan genocide. Two top officials were fired and the court is being reorganized.

Louise Arbour, who is chief prosecutor for both tribunals, has vowed to clean up the Rwandan court. As she put it: We owe it to the more than half-million victims of genocide in Rwanda to do better than we've done.

Christian Wisskirchen, who follows the two tribunals for the London-based Institute for War and Peace Reporting, says that in Africa the tribunal is seen as incompetent and corrupt. Although corruption was not proven, there was serious mismanagement.

Both tribunals are seriously underfunded, with the result that they do not have enough investigators to build cases against many suspects. Wisskirchen says that the Yugoslav tribunal has in total 50 police investigators to collect evidence of some of the worst atrocities in the world since World War II. He says that contrasts, for example, with 350 police officers who were assigned recently to the investigation of a child sex-and-murder case in just one small country, Belgium.

One undisputed accomplishment of the Rwandan tribunal is that, as Wisskirchen puts it, they have bigger fish in their detention facilities. One of them is Col. Theoneste Bagosora, one of the top figures in the interim government that is accused of ordering the 1994 genocide. Says Wisskirchen: If Bagosora is locked away for life, the Rwandan population will feel that justice is being done and they can turn over a new leaf.

Similarly, he says, if people like Karadzic and Mladic are arrested, that will definitely make a big difference in future reconciliation among Bosnia's former warring parties.

Despite their shortcomings, the two tribunals have added ammunition to the arguments that a permanent international criminal court with jurisdiction throughout the world should be set up. The United Nations has established a preparatory committee to discuss the issue, and the court may actually be established at a UN conference scheduled for Rome in the summer of 1998.

Advocates have great hopes that such a court -- building on the work of the Yugoslav and Rwandan tribunals -- can actually influence how wars are conducted in the future -- or prevent them altogether.

Wisskirchen at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting puts it this way: If the court has teeth, it may actually prevent atrocities like the one in Rwanda from occurring. If Karadzic and Mladic are arrested, then perhaps one dictator or government may think twice about how they conduct war, if at all. This is an opening, a big chance.