Prosecutor of a new Nuremberg

Tribunals at the Hague are about to tackle the horrors of Bosnia and Rwanda. Marie Ryan talks to the man in charge

Does the truth set you free? In the case of societies which have suffered wartime atrocities, uncovering the truth is part of the healing process, argues Justice Richard Goldstone, Chief Prosecutor of the War Crimes Tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. "If one ignores serious violations of human rights, and doesn't have any form of justice or any form of acknowledgement for the victims, that cancer is going to remain in the society and can erupt later.

"I think it's an important reason for cycles of violence recurring over decades as has happened in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. People can't forgive if they don't know what to forgive, and they don't know who to forgive. There'll always be that feeling of anger and resentment. It can't be assuaged completely, but it can be mitigated by an official acknowledgement of what people have suffered, before getting on with rebuilding the future and forgetting the past."

Born in 1938 in Boksburg, outside Johannesburg, Richard Goldstone knew from the time he was in primary school that he wanted to be a lawyer. "My maternal grandfather had a lot to do with that decision. I was very close to him and he decided I should be a lawyer - I think that made the difference."

He grew up in a well-off, upper-middle-class environment - his father was in business, his mother taught ballet, elocution and music - where racist attitudes were frowned upon. Attendance at a multi-racial university and strong involvement in student politics helped cement the liberal attitudes learnt at home.

In 1991 he was appointed chairman of the Commission of Inquiry into political violence in South Africa, popularly known as the Goldstone Commission, which investigated the conspiracy by senior members of the security forces to derail the political settlement being brokered by De Klerk and Mandela.

With his reputation established by this lengthy investigation, it came as little surprise when he was offered the job of chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) last year. The honour was welcome, the timing of it less so: with a seat on the newly formed Constitutional Court, and a new Bill of Rights to interpret, this was going to be a deeply interesting time for any lawyer with a concern in constitutional matters. But any doubts about taking the job were shortlived. "Nelson Mandela suggested that from a South African perspective it was important to take the job, and he thought I should do it," he explains.

The two International Criminal Tribunals for former Yugoslavia and Rwanda are the first to attempt to prosecute war crimes in an international forum since the end of the Second World War. Set up at the request of the Security Council, their area of jurisdiction covers grave breaches of the Geneva Convention of 1949, violation of the laws or customs of war, genocide and crimes against humanity. The conflicts in Rwanda and Bosnia have given them plenty to get on with, as the rooms bulging with files in their headquarters in the Hague testify.

The Office of the Prosecutor is one of three parts which make up the ICTY, the other two being the Chambers and the Registry. The Chambers consists of 11 judges, including two women, who are drawn from all over the world; 125 Rules of Procedure and Evidence govern the workings of the court.

Prosecution of those responsible for planning and authorising outrages such as the mass rapes and ethnic cleansing is high on the list of objectives. So far, it has proved easier to locate those who actually carried out the crimes, but the recent moves towards indicting General Ratko Mladic and President Radovan Karadzic confirm the tribunal's intention to nail those at the top.

Mr Goldstone insists on keeping the tribunals' work independent of any political considerations. When it was announced in April that he was asking the Bosnian government to defer proceedings against Karadzic and Mladic to ICTY,there were criticisms of the timing of his announcement because of the possible impact on the ongoing peace negotiations. "They're entitled to comment on the effect of what we do," he says. "But it doesn't mean we have to take these things into account if we don't conceive it to be our duty. We're not politicians, we're lawyers."

Trials in absentia are not allowed, so for a prosecution to take place an accused has to appear before the court. It seems unlikely that suspected war criminals will come willingly, but the tribunal can reduce the number of countries willing to offer them safe haven by the use of the international arrest warrant. "If, following their indictment, they don't come here either voluntarily or otherwise, then all we can do is apply Rule 6l," says Mr Goldstone. (Rule 61 provides for referral to the Trial Chamber where, if the Chamber considers there are reasonable grounds for believing the accused has committed the crimes, an international arrest warrant is issued.)

"I don't think that one should underestimate the effect of Rule 61. The evidence becomes part of the public record and an international warrant has very serious consequences for those concerned. It's worth it even if, in the end, people are not tried, but I'm confident a number of people will end up being tried."

By their nature, war crimes tribunals are investigating a conflict after the event. Does Mr Goldstone ever consider how some of the terrible conflicts besetting the world might be nipped in the bud at an earlier stage? "I don't think you can generalise, you have to look at it on a case-by-case basis because conditions are so different from country to country.

"I'm often asked what I have learnt from the South African situation. What I think it does show, but it's difficult to replicate, is the importance of strong, sane leadership. The difference was made by the fact of Mandela and De Klerk coinciding, with both being able to lead their people in directions that were unexpected."

It is a depressing thought that a successful transition from conflict to peace depends on the calibre of leaders, when one considers the current crop holding down those jobs. A man with Mandela's lack of bitterness and ability to forgive is a rarity. South Africa is truly fortunate to have him.

"Ah, but you mustn't underrate the peculiar act of De Klerk," responds Mr Goldstone. "I can't think of any other political leader embarking on a path which, if successful, will mean his getting out of power. It's not in the nature of political animals. It's not a rule of the game."

Mr Goldstone denies that he has his eye on Boutros Boutros-Ghali's job at the United Nations, as has been claimed in one newspaper. "I'd never heard of that until I read it. Really, I don't like politics." So where to, after the tribunals? "Back to South Africa to take my seat on the Constitutional Court," is the firm response.

Two key officials from Richard Goldstone's office - Patricia Sellers (legal adviser for gender-related crimes) and Donato Kiniger-Passigli (external relations officer) - will be speaking about the role of the tribunals at the Human Rights Convention in London on 16 June. Call 0171- 378 8659 for details.

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