Tue, 06 Mar 2001

War crimes tribunal proceeds one step at a time

By Gwynne Dyer

LONDON (JP): For years, former Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic lived openly in Belgrade at 119 Vlagoja Parovica Street. He treated with utter contempt his indictment by the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia for directing the slaughter of 7,045 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in July, 1995 -- but last month, Mladic suddenly went underground.

The net is starting to tighten. In January, Biljana Plavsic, former president of the Bosnian Serb Republic, surrendered to the Hague tribunal to face trial for genocide and war crimes. (Plavsic once suggested that Muslims were "genetically deformed", and she was photographed in 1992 stepping over the body of a murdered Muslim to kiss Arkan, most brutal of the Serbian paramilitary leaders).

That was followed by the Serbian government's arrest of Rade Markovic, former head of the Serbian secret police, on suspicion of multiple murder. If he talks, the trail of evidence will quickly lead not only to Mladic but to the men in charge of the whole Bosnian genocide, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic. And it's not just in the Balkans that progress is being made.

In mid-January, the Cambodian parliament unanimously passed a UN-sponsored bill setting up a "mixed tribunal" to try former Khmer Rouge leaders for murdering 1.7 million people during 1975- 79. Most of the judges and prosecutors will be chosen by Cambodia, but a minority (with a veto both on indictments and decisions not to indict) are to be appointed by the United Nations.

And here's another straw in the wind. Amid the shower of murky pardons and petty thefts that marred Bill Clinton's departure from the White House, he did one useful thing. On New Year's Day, he signed the treaty establishing the International Criminal Court (ICC), which is designed to try people accused of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity when their own national government fails to act.

These are all ambiguous steps forward, of course. It's encouraging that Mladic is worried enough to go into hiding, but it will be harder to arrest him. It's good that Khmer Rouge leaders will at last face trial, but the "mixed tribunal" created to try them is a step away from the principles embodied in the International Criminal Court.

And though Clinton signed the ICC treaty, there is no chance that the U.S. Senate will ratify it any time soon.

It's a classic glass-half-full/glass-half-empty argument. You can despair that five years after the Bosnian genocide, none of the three major co-conspirators has faced the Hague tribunal. Or you can take heart that it is still actively seeking them after all this time, and that Milosevic was overthrown last year and is now under 24-hour surveillance.

Indeed, all the senior Serbs facing war-crimes charges are now at risk, for the new Serbian government has promised to work in cooperation with the Hague tribunal and modify the constitutional provision forbidding the extradition of Yugoslav citizens.

"It is either (Milosevic) or us," said Yugoslav Deputy Prime Minister Miroljub Labus, citing the danger that Serbia could be deprived of foreign aid. "Together, we have no future."

There are only two flies in the ointment. One is the fact that the Hague tribunal, like the similar tribunal that is pursuing the leaders of the genocide in Rwanda, is only an ad hoc response to a specific set of events.

The bigger fly is that the new Cambodian court, like the one now being negotiated between the UN and the government of Sierra Leone, will be a "mixed tribunal'" applying national law with some international supervision. (Something similar is also envisaged for East Timor.)

This proliferation of international courts with limited mandates, which now include "mixed tribunals" applying different national laws, may be subverting the goal of a unified international justice system.

Add in more one-off events like the Lockerbie trial, where Scottish judges tried accused Libyan terrorists on Dutch soil with UN blessing, and the whole enterprise could be overwhelmed by a welter of conflicting rulings and precedents.

The International Criminal Court was meant to be the solution to all that, but its founding treaty is only halfway to the sixty ratifications by national legislatures that will bring it into effect. Even after that, the ICC will be crippled if the United States refuses to ratify it and so long as Senator Jesse Helms remains in charge of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that won't happen.

Helms is even sponsoring a law that would ban U.S. cooperation with the ICC, and authorize U.S. military action to free any American soldiers who ever face charges before it.

Clinton's signature removes one potential obstacle to American ratification, in the sense that it no longer requires President George W. Bush's signature to send the treaty to the Senate, but the balance in the Senate itself will have to change, by death or by mid-term elections two years from now, before the U.S. could actually join.

Since the will is there to do something about all the horrors now, waiting for the ICC to take shape would be a grave mistake: Witnesses die, memories fade, the will falters, and the guilty escape.

Far better a multitude of courts and some contradictory precedents. In due course the International Criminal Court will take shape, and sooner or later the U.S. will almost certainly join.

In the meantime, real progress is being made -- one step at a time.