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Yugoslavia: Cooperation With War Crimes Tribunal Remains Open Question

Under the threat of severe U.S. financial aid sanctions, Yugoslav President Vojislav Kostunica seems to have given ground on cooperating with the UN war crimes tribunal in The Hague. He says that parliament may approve a law on 10 April finally settling the question of extraditing war crimes suspects to the court. But a court official tells RFE/RL correspondent Don Hill that to everybody but the Yugoslavs themselves, the proposed law is virtually irrelevant.

Prague, 8 April 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The Yugoslav parliament expects to take up tomorrow long-pending, bitterly controversial legislation that, if it passes, may not do what it intends and, even if it did, might not matter anyway.

This is a proposed law that President Vojislav Kostunica says would enable him to cooperate with the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia.

Until last week, Kostunica -- the man who succeeded Slobodan Milosevic at the nation's helm -- had opposed the law, as well as the work of the court itself. He said that the tribunal, set up to try war criminals from the Balkan wars of the 1990s, was unacceptably anti-Serb.

Last week (31 March), however, Yugoslavia lurched into crisis. It failed to meet a deadline imposed by the U.S. Congress to transfer indicted war crimes suspects to The Hague court. That failure froze about $40 million worth of still-pending U.S. aid and put at risk U.S. support for loans of still larger amounts from international financial institutions.

Facing those losses, Kostunica blinked. He predicted last week that his coalition government would get the law through parliament's pending session, possibly as early as 10 April. "If there is the political will, if the discussion of the two coalition partners clears up the situation, we can accept the law on cooperation with The Hague as an urgent proceeding. That can be done in a day or two without any problems. You know that the next parliamentary session is to be 10 April. And we can [pass the law] in that session."

The thrust of the proposed law is to contravene a provision in the Yugoslav Constitution that forbids extraditing Yugoslav citizens to be tried in foreign courts. Extradition is a legal term that refers to delivering an accused person to a foreign government.

At the UN tribunal, however, a court official says that what the court seeks for the Yugoslav citizens it has indicted is, as a legal matter, not extradition at all. Jean-Jacques Joris, diplomatic adviser to the tribunal's prosecution, told RFE/RL: "Our court is an international court. So [handing over an accused person] is not an extradition. It is a transfer. And this is something that, according to many respected law experts in Yugoslavia, is absolutely compatible with the constitution in Yugoslavia, which makes clear that the [proposed] law is not needed in Yugoslavia."

Joris says the UN Security Council settled more than three years ago the legal questions about transferring suspects from Yugoslavia to the international tribunal: "The discussion on the law is a purely internal one. It is one that has been used as an excuse for years. Actually, the Security Council passed already a resolution in November 1998 reminding Yugoslavia that it could not use [the claim] that it lacked legislation as an excuse to obstruct [meeting] its international obligation."

Joris expressed concern that the legislation even could have a negative effect on Yugoslav cooperation with the court. In setting the procedure for what Kostunica's government insists would be extraditions, the law might add complicating requirements: "If they adopt a law finally, fine. But let that law ensure that all cooperation will be possible and that [the law] will not just list hurdles and obstacles to make arrests and transfers more difficult."

Another problem with the legislation, Joris said, is that major areas of necessary cooperation exist that the Yugoslav government does not even contend are prohibited by the constitution or law: "Everybody is expecting developments in Belgrade [this week]. It is not only about arrests and turnover of indictees. It is also about finally making our work possible: access to archives, access to documentation, access to witnesses."

No real dispute exists over Joris' view that the proposed law is aimed mainly at Yugoslavia's internal affairs. Kostunica, a Serb, leads a coalition government that is dependent on its coalition with its Montenegrin members. The Federal Republic of Yugoslavia comprises Serbia and its much-smaller neighbor, Montenegro. Until now, the Montenegro delegation has opposed any handovers to The Hague of Yugoslav citizens.

Further complicating the internal politics is the attitude of the West-leaning Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindic. Djindic said last week that Kostunica's policies could lead to a "devastating" loss of financial aid.

Kostunica responded that what he called the "harsh words" of Djindic and his allies were interfering with the likelihood that Yugoslavia could work out an agreement with U.S. officials.