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UN: War Crimes Tribunal Seeking Reforms To Ease Caseload

The UN's war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is straining under its caseload. Its president says it is facing huge delays in rendering justice if reforms are not undertaken soon. At the same time, he says, increasing cooperation on arresting accused war criminals will bring hundreds of additional cases to the Hague. UN Correspondent Robert McMahon reports.

United Nations, 21 June 2000 (RFE/RL) -- In six years of operation, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has rendered only 16 judgments.

Of 96 individuals indicted for war crimes, 36 are in detention and more than one quarter remain at large. An additional 25 cases have either been dropped or ended with the death of the accused.

But to the tribunal's president, Claude Jorda of France, the numbers are an affirmation that the tribunal is working. He says that starting with nothing in 1993, the tribunal in The Hague has built an apparatus demonstrating that an international judicial system can function.

Now, he says, the system needs reform. Jorda on Tuesday told the UN Security Council that political changes in the Balkans, combined with increased support from the international community, is leading to more arrests of suspected war criminals. He said ongoing investigations could bring to The Hague an additional 200 people accused of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide connected with the ethnic conflicts in the former Yugoslavia.

He told the council that current procedures cannot accommodate the heavier caseload.

"The workload of the tribunal is now so heavy that, should no remedy be found immediately, the institution's very credibility will be put into question. We owe it to the accused a trial which is, of course, fair but which is also expeditious."

He said the tribunal's judges are unanimous in supporting procedural reforms. One of the chief reforms recommended is in the pre-trial phase. The accused would be put in the pre-trial phase right after their arrests, with their cases handled by legal specialists acting under the authority of judges. Jorda said this could reduce the sometimes lengthy waiting period the accused currently have before seeing a judge.

Jorda said the tribunal's judges need to be given more initiative and flexibility to be able to handle the large number of trials. He said this could include the use of a pool of outside judges, who could be called in whenever new cases are ready.

Security Council members for the most part expressed support for the tribunal's efforts. But the Russian ambassador, Sergei Lavrov, repeated Russia's concern that the tribunal has a bias against Serbs.

Lavrov also repeated Russia's objection to the recent decision by the tribunal's prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, not to pursue an investigation against NATO for alleged war crimes committed during the bombing of Yugoslavia.

"Unfortunately, we have seen political ambitions that have emerged, and a clear anti-Serb line has been adopted. Having determined for itself the main culprit in the Yugoslavia tragedy, the tribunal turned a blind eye to violations of international humanitarian law involving other parties in the conflict."

Jorda later told reporters it was the decision of del Ponte, based on the evidence available, not to pursue a case against NATO. Like del Ponte, Jorda also said a lack of cooperation from Belgrade has hampered the tribunal's efforts to prosecute possible war crimes committed against Serbs.

Lavrov's criticism of the tribunal drew a strong response from the U.S. ambassador to the UN, Richard Holbrooke. He said the presence of the tribunal helped to bolster the 1995 Dayton peace accords which ended the Bosnian war. Holbrooke said it is wrong to call the tribunal politically motivated.

"The charges of bias are not only not proven, they're not accurate. And the countries uttering these criticisms were full participants in the Dayton processes, they agreed to what was being done, and I do not think that the criticisms are justified, valid or productive."

Holbrooke also repeated his wish that Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who has been indicted by the tribunal, be brought to The Hague.

The U.S. ambassador also said he supports discussion of how to create an international mechanism to prosecute war crimes committed in Sierra Leone. Holbrooke said he is against creating a new UN tribunal, in addition to the ones for the former Yugoslavia and for the Rwanda genocide. But he said some extension of the "international war crimes umbrella" to Sierra Leone must be looked at closely.