Balkan atrocities before the courts

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The Independent Online
AS BALKAN leaders gathered in Dayton, Ohio, this week to seek peace, a small delegation of Bosnian Serbs arrived at the war-crimes tribunal in The Hague to seek justice.

Zoran Perkovec, an Orthodox priest, and Slavko Sebarleya, an engineer, presented evidence to Justice Richard Goldstone, the chief prosecutor, accusing their Muslim jailers in Sarajevo of war crimes. With them was a Bosnian Serb woman, who does not wish to be identified, who had come to give evidence of killings and torture carried out by Croatians at the Tretla camp near Mostar. And a Bosnian Serb lawyer gave evidence of crimes by Croats in a camp in Split.

The hearing, at the anonymous tribunal building in The Hague, received little publicity, compared with the fanfare which accompanied the stage- managed events in Ohio. Yet the willingness of this group of Bosnian Serbs to come to the tribunal is the latest sign that the legal process under way at The Hague could prove as significant for reconciliation as the diplomatic process in Dayton. For the first time since the tribunal was established in May 1993, it was Serbs who were chosing to use the court to seek moral redress, laying charges of war crimes against Muslims and Croats. Their testimony began to correct a perceived imbalance in the the tribunal's scales of justice which has undermined its credibility.

Of the 43 individuals named to date on war crimes indictments by the tribunal, 42 are Serbs and one is a Croat. The Croat, Ivica Rajic, is accused of atrocities against Muslims. Few of the mass of victims named on the indictments so far are Serbs.

Nobody should be surprised, say court officials, that the tribunal began by investigating the most horrendous atrocities of the conflict, committed by Bosnian Serbs. Subsequent attempts to investigate war crimes against Serbs have been seriously hampered by Belgrade's and Pale's refusal to co-operate. Investigators have been refused visas to go to Serbia to interview Serb refugees from Bosnia and Croatia, many of whom are victims or witnesses to war crimes.

With Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, and Ratko Mladic, their military chief, both accused of genocide, Pale authorities have reviled the tribunal.

Mr Goldstone hopes the arrival of the Serb delegation may be an indication that Belgrade, at least, is now starting to co-operate, allowing the court to properly perform its momentous task as the first tribunal to try crimes against humanity since Nuremberg. Not only should the tribunal prosecute war criminals, it should become a forum for mass catharsis, he believes.

Lines on maps cannot force victims to forgive or forget, says Mr Goldstone, who headed investigations into South Africa's political violence and supported the Truth Commission on crimes during the struggle against apartheid. "If there is not some form of justice for victims leading to reconciliation, the chain of violence that has been going on since the last century will just begin again. It is very important for victims to be heard. My experience in South Africa taught me that only when people get that recognition can the healing process actually begin."

International lawyers hope the judicial process will help defuse the inter-group conflict. "The criminal process can shift blame from entire communities to individuals," says Theodore Meron of New York University."

In theory the work of the tribunal should be assisted by the diplomatic peace efforts. But in The Hague there is speculation whether justice might be sacrificed for the sake of peace. Will war crimes charges be "traded off" for a final agreement?

The greatest prize for the tribunal would be to bring Karadzic and Mladic to trial in The Hague. Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, appeared to signal in Ohio that this is the wish of the US, making clear that peace could not come about as long as these men were in power. Yet there is little confidence in The Hague that such a trial will come about. Indicted war criminals can be arrested if they step on to the soil of a UN member state, but the tribunal has no means to hunt them down. Only one of those so far indicted, Dusan Tadic, has been arrested.

If a peace deal is implemented, Mr Goldstone hopes, the newly constituted states will be forced somehow to co-operate with the tribunal. But how?

There is also the tricky question of whether Slobodan Milosevic, President of Serbia, could yet be charged with war crimes. Or is he being protected because he is essential to a peace process? Richard Goldstone insists the tribunal is independent of political considerations. "If we have not indicted some leaders you must assume we do not have evidence to indict them."

New indictments are said to be pending from investigations into atrocities in Western Slavonia, and the latest evidence of mass slaughter at Srebrenica has also been consuming investigators' time. Investigations into crimes arising from the Croatian offensive in Krajina in August have only just begun.

Mr Goldstone seems undaunted by the torrent of horror which pours over him, but he worries about the moral dilemma of selecting cases to pursue. "If we have solid evidence of people lower down, that they have commited war crimes, we have a moral duty to indict them." But he knows he has to prioritise, and talks of targeting "significant people" rather than "significant numbers". He hopes that up to 50 cases can be heard each year.

"My fear is that when they get to the end of the peace process they will talk about mass amnesties," Professor Meron says. "If they have to choose between peace and justice, they will choose peace. But it will be a very shortsighted view of the future."