Hague tribunal stands in judgement over warlords

The International Tribunal of War Crimes indicted two Bosnian Serb leaders last week. Peter Weiss examines its powers

Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic have been charged with crimes against humanity and genocide by Justice Richard Goldstone, a former South African judge and the independent prosecutor for the International Tribunal of War Crimes.

The tribunal was set up in the Hague in 1993 by the United Nations to deal with war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. The court has the power to prosecute persons responsible for the serious violation of international human law committed in former Yugoslavia since 1991.

Justice Goldstone has four conditions under which the court has jurisdiction to try alleged war criminals:

– Breaches of the Geneva Convention which apply to international law;

– Breaches of laws of customs and war which relate to property offences;

– Genocide, which requires proof of intent to exterminate a group;

– Crimes against humanity.

The court procedure resembles national trials rather than military ones and there will be several hurdles for Goldstone to overcome to get convictions.

One difficulty, particularly for trying lower ranking officials, is proving that their crimes were against humanity rather than just bad behaviour. Other issues will be making charges of international crimes in a situation which is perceived by some as a civil war.

Currently, there is only one case where someone accused by the court is incarcerated and standing trial in the Hague.

He is Dusan Tadic, an officer in the Serbian Reserve Militia who is accused of ethnic cleansing, rape, murder, and torture. Tadic has been brought before the court in a preliminary hearing and is awaiting trial this summer.

The establishment of the court is seen by Amnesty International as a step in the right direction. The organisation is pressing the UN to set up an International Criminal Court which will try war criminals who have committed genocide, and crimes against humanity in all countries, not just in former Yugoslavia.

The proposal for an International Criminal Court will go before a vote in September.

– Tribunal facts

The court is made up of 11 judges selected jointly by the Security Council and the General Assembly. Three judges are assigned to each trial chamber and decisions are reached by a majority vote. Cases which are appealed are heard before five judges. Sentencing is based on practices in the former Yugoslavia.

Evidence at the trials has been supplied by a preliminary commission which conducted a fact-finding mission in former Yugoslavia.

Much of the evidence will depend on oral accounts of witnesses and there has already been discussion of granting anonymity to witnesses, particularly women who have been the victims of rape. There is also the concern that because of the atrocities they have undergone, it will be difficult to place witnesses on the stand for an extended period of time.