Ghost of Nuremberg will haunt tribunal: There are no victors in Yugoslavia's war, therefore no 'victor's justice', Judge Goldstone tells Robert Block in The Hague

The workmen building the courtroom in a wing of an old Art Deco insurance building in The Hague go about their jobs with a sense of urgency. In just two weeks, the courtroom, which will be the centre stage of the first international war crimes tribunal in 50 years, will hold its first public hearing.

There is much work to do if all is to go according to plan. As of yesterday, the bullet-proof glass wall that separates the actual chambers from the public gallery was in place. But the rest of the vast room was still covered with wood panelling and bare metal struts.

The workmen are not the only people in the tribunal working under the pressure of a deadline. The 15 staff investigators are also rushing to prepare for the 8 November hearing when the prosecutor, Richard Goldstone, will inform the court of his intention to investigate Dusan Tadic, a Bosnian Serb under arrest in Germany for allegedly ordering the torture and killing of Muslims during a campaign of 'ethnic cleansing' in northern Bosnia in 1992.

While there are several problems with the Tadic case, including the need to get Germany to surrender jurisdiction, Mr Tadic fits the tribunal's criteria of being a person of some responsibility against whom there appears to be significant evidence. And with the tribunal's finances running out at the end of the year, Mr Goldstone and his team felt pressed to move quickly against the most eligible suspect in Western hands in order to convince the world that the court is working.

The event next month, while little more than a formality devoid of the drama of seeing a suspect in the dock, is a symbolically important event for a body dogged by criticism of lethargy since its inception in a UN Security Council resolution on 22 February 1993. 'It is the first time the tribunal will face the public. It represents the birth of the tribunal,' said Mr Goldstone's spokesman, Christian Chartier.

Mr Goldstone is one of South Africa's most respected judges. He assumed his job as prosecutor fresh from heading a three- year commission on political violence in his own country.

He investigated and exposed the shadowy involvement of white security forces in black township violence. His efforts were crucial to the country's transition to majority rule. He is by no means a man who can be lightly dismissed. But even he is philosophical when it comes to his present task.

He is fully aware that in Bosnia, unlike in Germany 50 years ago, there are no victors and therefore there can be no 'victor's justice'.

The tribunal arose from wrangling between Washington and Europe over how to respond to the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Americans pressed hardest for its creation, and if the tribunal is a product of US insistance, then it is a true reflection of its most important antecedent, the Nazi war crime tribunal convened in Nuremberg on 20 November 1945.

The very language used to describe the Bosnian war's atrocities: 'ethnic cleansing', genocide and concentration camps, is entangled with the language of the Nazi era. And the tribunal for the prosecution of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia itself carries echoes of Nuremberg.

But the comparison is one with which Mr Goldstone is not completely comfortable. 'Nuremberg was a military tribunal, this is a civil court.

Nuremberg was set up by the four victorious powers, this has been established by the United Nations. Above all, the biggest difference is that times have changed.'

The tribunal, with its present staff of 60, is small. Apart from 24 detention cells built in The Hague to hold any accused awaiting trial, no countries have yet volunteered prisons to house the convicted.

Most significantly, the tribunal has no powers of arrest. All it can do is issue arrest warrants against those whom it has deemed guilty according to the weight of evidence. Such a warrant would only amount to humiliation, not necessarily punishment, for those accused who remain out of reach in the war zone.

Is this an adequate response to what has happened in Bosnia? 'On its own, clearly not,' said Mr Goldstone. 'Let me preface that by saying that any system of justice is an ex-post facto event. And its relevance is the extent to which it can assist reconciliation and peace. Without a succesful peace process it is irrelevant.'

Part of the problem, and a source of scepticism over the tribunal's ultimate effectiveness, is that those deemed most responsible for the crimes in the former Yugoslavia are those same leaders now being courted by the international community to make peace.

'People like referring to names of leaders, that is not the approach in this office. We are looking for evidence against anybody who has been implicated in human rights abuses.' How far up the chain is Mr Goldstone willing to go?

'As far up the chain as the evidence takes us.'

(Photograph omitted)