Wed, 12 Sep 2001

Tribunal sweeps from light to heavy butchers

By Abigail Levene

THE HAGUE (Reuters): Widely written off as a weakling at its birth eight years ago, the Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal has grown into a force to be reckoned with.

Many feared the United Nations International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia would be bargained out of existence in the 1995 Dayton agreement that ended the last decade's Balkan wars. Yet one of the accord's signatories, erstwhile Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, now sits in a Hague cell awaiting trial.

Prosecutors plan to charge him soon with genocide for atrocities in Bosnia, as well as adding a Croatia indictment to the Kosovo charge sheet he already faces.

The tribunal last month handed down its first ever conviction for genocide, the heaviest crime on its books, and a 46-year term to former Bosnian Serb general Radislav Krstic.

On Monday, it began three trials on the same day for the first time in its history, its capacity greatly boosted by the recent appointment of extra judges.

Un officials are flush with pride. "There is a growing realization that justice is a possibility, and is a reality in The Hague," said Graham Blewitt, U.N. deputy prosecutor since 1994.

He told Reuters, "There are often accusations that the tribunal is acting politically, but as we progress ... those accusations are seen to be hollow and false."

UN staff were delighted when Serbian reformers sent the tribunal's most wanted man, Milosevic, to The Hague in June. And the excitement was palpable in The Hague last month when judges handed Krstic their first genocide conviction for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre of thousands of Muslim males.

Establishing that genocide was committed in Bosnia set an important legal precedent.

"The tribunal has really brought life to the laws of war," said Richard Dicker, director of international justice at Human Rights Watch in New York.

"What the tribunal has done in interpreting genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes constitutes a milestone in the development of law ..."

The Hague tribunal was created by U.N. Security Council resolution 827 on May 25, 1993. It was born with meagre funds, little historical precedent to guide its work and then, as now, had no police powers to enforce its indictments.

Setting up shop in a building then shared with a Dutch insurance company, it had no prosecutor for many months. In 1993, the court had a budget of just $276,000. In an official report in 1994, the tribunal said it was "operating with one hand behind its back".

The tribunal's annual budget now tops $96 million and it employs 1,120 people from 75 countries.

The Hague is the first international tribunal in Europe since Nazi leaders went on trial in Nuremberg after World War II -- a comparison that did the former few favors at first.

When Bosnian Serb police reservist Dusko Tadic became the first suspect to stand trial in 1996, critics poured scorn on the court for expending its resources on such small fry and recalled top-rank Nuremberg defendants like Hermann Goering.

But the tribunal has always been reliant on Western forces to arrest indictees -- angering chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte who has in the past criticized NATO for not making more arrests.

The pace of arrests and surrenders and the prominence of detainees have increased recently. This year's arrivals in The Hague include former Bosnian Serb leader Biljana Plavsic, who turned herself in January.

The tribunal's influence is felt far beyond its Dutch base. The Yugoslav government was toppled by Milosevic's handover to The Hague. Croatia's decision to cooperate with the tribunal brought the Zagreb government to the brink of collapse.

Though sometimes accused of administering victors' justice, it has indicted senior figures from all three of Bosnia's ethnic groups and rejects criticism that it is biased against Serbs.

But its critics are unimpressed by the range of indictments. "Our stand on the tribunal remains unchanged -- it has shown that it is politicized and biased and from time to time it tries to change this impression by issuing an indictment or arresting someone that is not a Serb," Vladimir Krsljanin, a top official of Milosevic's Socialist party, told Reuters in Belgrade.

Krsljanin was speaking in August after the tribunal reeled in Bosnian Muslim generals Mehmed Alagic and Enver Hadzihasanovic and brigadier Amir Kubura, the most senior Bosnian Muslims yet charged with war crimes by the court.

"I do not believe it is a place where objective trials can be carried out on events in the former Yugoslavia because the key factor that has contributed to negative developments in the territory of the former Yugoslavia in the past 10 years -- NATO -- has been amnestied by the tribunal," Krsljanin said.