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Kosovo: War Crimes Court To Be Established

A new war crimes court will soon be established in Kosovo. The court will deal mostly with cases not taken up by the United Nations' international criminal tribunal in The Hague. But it will also be a vehicle for trying the interethnic hate crimes that have plagued the province for almost a year. RFE/RL correspondent Alexandra Poolos spoke with the officials who organized the new judiciary.

Prague, 27 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- International authorities are setting up a war crimes court in Kosovo to relieve pressure on the province's own judiciary, which has been overwhelmed by the volume of postwar crime cases. The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, or OSCE, says that the court will begin work in June.

The new court will have its own prosecutors and will be empowered to take on cases from other courts in Kosovo. To counter any suggestion of favoritism, the court's international judge will be flanked by an ethnic Albanian and a Serb. The three judges will examine and try cases, referring those that are serious enough directly to the UN's International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which operates in The Hague.

OSCE Human Rights Director Rolf Welberts says that his 54-state organization worked with UN headquarters and the UN civil administration in Kosovo to organize the court, including recruiting and training judges and prosecutors. The court will act like other Kosovo courts under the legal standards established in the province more than 10 years ago and will also use international legal precedents established in The Hague.

Welberts says the court was set up to ease the enormous case load now clogging the local court system in Kosovo:

"Obviously, the establishment of this court happens against the background of the problems experienced in connection with the establishment of the local judicial system. Progress has been achieved, but of course problems do exist and the biggest one is again the capacity problem. Now, I wouldn't expect the war crimes tribunal to handle everyday cases, but certainly by talking on bigger cases, important cases, with an interethnic background and particularly a war crimes background, capacity will be created with the local courts to handle everyday cases [to a] larger extent."

Welberts underlines that the court will deal not only with war crimes but with hate or interethnic crimes committed by Kosovars of any ethnic origin. For now, he says, the bulk of cases waiting to be tried involve ethnic Serbs. So far, more than 40 Serbs have been charged with war crimes and are awaiting trial in Kosovo's jails.

According to Welberts, the chief challenge facing the Kosovo court system is establishing an independent judiciary that is free from ethnic bias:

"It's more a matter of finding the right people, training them, making the judges really independent -- independent materially, independent from communal pressures, independent from outside influences, building up a really professional judiciary."

Paul Risley, a spokesman for the Hague-based tribunal, told our correspondent that the new court would also alleviate the case load at the UN tribunal:

"In this instance, it's very clear that the tribunal in The Hague wants to investigate and prosecute the senior-most persons -- the 'big fish,' if you will. For the potentially hundreds of other individuals who may be suspected or alleged to have committed crimes in Kosovo, it makes no sense to bring each and every person here to The Hague. There are not enough detention cells in The Hague for such persons."

Setting up a local war crimes court is not a new idea in the former Yugoslavia. Similar attempts were made in Bosnia and Croatia. Risley says that ethnic bias and prejudice prevented courts in those countries from becoming acceptable legal institutions. International officials, he adds, hope that the new court in Kosovo will not be plagued by similar ethnic influences:

"In Kosovo, the OSCE and the UN mission has made it very clear that their tribunals would include international judges as well as judges selected from both the Albanian and the Serbian population within Kosovo. And I certainly have no doubt in my mind that the concern of how partisan or how fair a tribunal might be is their number-one concern and number-one priority."

Risley says the UN tribunal in The Hague, which is administered by international judges, will be watching the Kosovo war crimes court very carefully. The Hague judiciary will assert primacy over any case if a bias or injustice is perceived in the way it is handled in Kosovo. If that occurs, the case will be moved to The Hague.