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Western Press Review: International War Crimes Court Warrants Examination

By Elizabeth Weinstein and Dora Slaba

Prague, 27 July 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Western newspapers today continue to debate the politics surrounding a proposed international war crimes court. Editorial commentary focuses mainly on the tribunal's strength and Washington's views about its independence, as well as potential loopholes in the court treaty. Opinion writers also discuss the tribunal in the light of a weekend report in the New York Times that Washington has halted plans to arrest the former Yugoslavia's most wanted war crimes suspects.

WASHINGTON POST: Objections to the court go much further

Fred Hyatt, of the Washington Post, says the United States was not "forthright enough" in its opposition to creating the tribunal. Hyatt says U.S. President Bill Clinton is caught in the awkward position of protecting U.S. interests while showing the international community that the U.S. is tough on international war crimes.

Hyatt gives examples about why U.S. oppostion should have been stronger: "Those wondering whether such a court could remain apolitical should note that even at its birth, its creators could not resist a dig at Israel, naming as a war crime the transfer, "directly or indirectly," of population from an occupying power onto occupied territory.

"Prosecutors could initiate investigations whenever they chose and carry them forward to indictment with the permission of only two judges. Citizens of countries that did no sign the treaty would not be safe, the court claims for itself authority over everyone."

He concludes by saying that the prospect of having an unaccountable court with the power to override national judgments is very real. He says the U.S. support for the court is necessary, but that the U.S. is right to worry about the court's initial shaky foundations.

He writes, "And to institutionalize a weakening of national sovereignty in favor of unelected human rights groups on one end and unaccountable supranational courts and prosecutors on the other is fundamentally anti-democratic. To worry about such a trend is not to be pro-genocide."

NEW YORK TIMES: The treaty has some serious loopholes

A New York Times editorial today entitled "A Weak International Court" says the 120 nations which voted to create the tribunal didn't take enough time to iron out the "loopholes" in the treaty. The newspaper says the most serious loophole "provides that before someone can be prosecuted either his government or the country where the abuse took place must consent. This will grant state-sponsored criminals impunity when their victims are their own countrymen, which is the case with most conflicts today. They can even travel freely. Only someone who commits genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes on foreign soil should fear the court -- and even then the court may lack adequate power to prosecute." The New York Times concludes that the treaty was finished in "a mad scramble" and "still must still be refined. It is important to keep trying to make the court as strong as possible. Unfortunately Washington seems poised to continue its sabotage of the court."

INTERNATIONAL HERALD TRIBUNE: A war crimes court will never end confrontation

An opinion piece by Flora Lewis in Sunday's International Herald Tribune (July 26) outlines the risks of creating the court. She writes: "The central problem is politics, and the risk that the tribunal would become not an objective dispenser of criminal justice, but a political tool for ideological and ethnic confrontation." But Lewis says a war crimes court will never end confrontation, no matter how many provisions it makes for deterring criminals. She says: "One of the best arguments for the court is that, by establishing personal, individual responsibility for violence judged criminal, it undermines and can wipe out the old tradition of collective blood feuds, the right of revenge." Lewis concludes that "one of the worst arguments is that fear of being brought to trial will deter all future Pol Pots, Saddam Husseins, Pinochets and so on. In the brief period between the two world wars, the Kellogg-Briand treaty outlawed war and encouraged complacency. It is still a dangerous world."

ECONOMIST: The court should condemn countries that shelter criminals

The latest issue of The Economist (July 25-31) says the new tribunal should be a "voice for victims." The Economist says: "It will take a few years for the 60 required treaty ratifications to be achieved. But once the court is up and running, governments will have to explain to world opinion, and their own people, any reluctance to co-operate with it. Even future American governments may find it more politic, and useful, to do so." The Economist says US negotiators tried to create obstacles to the court's independence. It says most of America's closest allies could not give Washington "what it really wanted --a cast-iron guarantee that no American could ever be charged before the court for a war crime-- without rendering the court impotent." The Economist concludes, "Most important of all, the court should stand as a reproach to countries that tolerate or shelter those who commit atrocities. Throughout a bloody century, impunity has been the rule. This new court holds out the hope that, in the next century, the rule of law may sometimes prevail."

INDEPENDENT: America's about-turn will further subvert the work of the Hague Tribunal

A news analysis in The Independent by Marcus Tanner examines a New York Times report that Washington has halted plans for the arrest of alleged Bosnian Serb war criminals Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. Tanner says the report demonstrates Washington's overall fear and laissez-faire attitude about cracking down on war crimes. The report, which is based on unnamed U.S. sources, said Washington came to the decision after more than two years of planning the arrests. Tanner writes: "The decision appears to be the result of diminishing public interest in Bosnia, France's continuing reluctance to help any such operation and fears of losses among American officers." Tanner says: "U.S. officers have voiced fears that the arrest of the two men could be a bloody affair. The report of America's about-turn will further subvert the work of the (existing) United Nations War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague. Some suspects have been handed over to that court recently. But the court's efforts will appear pointless if the two most crucial figures in Bosnia's carnage are, in fact, to be left in peace."

SUEDDEUTCHE ZEITUNG: For without justice there will also be no peace in Bosnia

Germany's Sueddeutsche Zeitung decries what it calls a "false sense of security" that Bosnian war crimes suspects have been given by the reported U.S. government decision. The newspaper's editorial says that the overwhelming evidence of crimes should take precedence over politics. It says: "And still, day-by-day, corpses with tied hands and bullets in their heads are being retrieved from mass graves. There are piles of evidence of the biggest massacre in Europe since the end of World War II. Yet the men who were responsible for this are moving about freely: Radovan Karadzic, a cynical war leader of the Bosnian Serbs, and Radko Mladic, the rough general." The Sueddeutsche Zeitung says: "The danger of a blood bath or new unrest is now, because of the increasing isolation of the suspects, less than it was two years ago. Are there other underlying calculations (behind Washington's reported decision)? Is the idea to delude the two chief suspects with a false sense of security? Or do the Americans --after their defeat over the International War Crimes Court-- want to demonstrate how powerless a world justice organization is without the U.S. as the world's police? That would be shameful - and dangerous. For without justice there will also be no peace in Bosnia."