MPs unite in condemning Britain's record on war crime prosecutions

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THE Government is hampering the United Nations effort to prosecute war criminals in the former Yugoslavia, Conservative and opposition MPs said yesterday.

Senior politicians and UN officials accused the Foreign Office of obstructing the UN war crimes council, the Commission of Experts, which was established seven months ago to collect information and prepare for the first war crimes tribunal since Nuremberg. The feeling is that for British officials the war crimes investigation serves only to complicate diplomatic negotiations over the future of Bosnia.

The commission, which has neither investigators nor powers of subpoena to gather evidence, relies on contributions from member states, who were called upon to supply whatever information they could find. The United States contribution so far consists of eight lengthy reports containing the testimonies of many witnesses and victims. Austria has submitted five reports, France two and Germany two, again each containing several testimonies.

Britain's sole contribution has been a one-page letter, accompanied by a short interview with an unidentified victim/witness. UN sources say the council's work has been made more difficult by what they describe as stalling tactics and non-cooperation from British legal advisers at the UN.

A further area of contention concerns the appointment of a chief prosecutor. UN members are supposed to file nominations for the 11 judges and the prosecutor this month, but, said Conservative MP William Powell, the Government had contributed to 'unneccessary waste of two months over the appointment'.

Underlying the complaints is the awareness that Britain has probably been better placed than any other state to collect and provide key testimony. It is one of the few countries with a significant force in Yugoslavia and it was the first to accept inmates of notorious Serbian detention camps at Omarska and at Manjaca - 68 former detainees were airlifted to Britain last September.

The Foreign Office declined to comment formally but sources disputed the contention that Britain was not pulling its weight.

However, Vanessa Vasic- Janekovic of War Report, a monthly bulletin about the fighting in former Yugoslavia, interviewed and tried to help many of the former detainees in Britain. 'The first people out of the camps came to England and many were capable of testifying, but they were never asked,' she said.'

The Liberal Democrats joined the attack on the Government's record. 'Some of the things that have happened are so awful that to ignore them is sinful,' said European affairs spokesman Sir Russell Johnston.

Council members would only describe Britain's contribution as lacklustre, the more so considering the Government's public prominence in support of efforts to establish the tribunal.

When the foreign ministers of America, France, Britain, Russia and Spain met in May to co-ordinate a response to the continuing war in Bosnia- Herzegovina, support for the establishment of a war crimes tribunal was reiterated as a centrepiece of international policy. The UN Security Council then agreed unanimously to establish an international tribunal based at the Hague to hear war crimes charges, including ethnic cleansing, rape, torture and murder in the former Yugoslavia.

But, as Venezuela's ambassador to the UN, Diego Arria, recently told American reporters, there are 'forces' favouring political expediency that can be expected to try to neuter the war crimes process.

The 'diplomatic factor' is cited by MP William Powell as one reason for the Government's lack of enthusiasm for a tribunal. As international diplomatic efforts to end the fighting in Bosnia have been largely British-led, first by Lord Carrington then Lord Owen, the Government did not want to hamper those attempts to end the fighting. Indicting political leaders in the midst of negotiations would certainly throw cold water on talks.

A second factor is a general scepticism over the likely success of any trials. Many diplomats are already dismissing the war crimes tribunal as 'just another empty gesture on Bosnia'. At the very least, they say, it will be hampered by a shortage of staff and money for the job. 'Britain is seeing to that, drawing up budgets that will be mostly taken up by buildings and fixtures instead of staff,' one UN official said.

The new tribunal will have a staff of about 100, say UN sources, including 22 field investigators and prosecutors. By contrast, at Nuremberg there were about 1,000 investigators and prosecutors to try 22 defendants. But at Nuremberg, there was an allied consensus that the Nazi leadership should pay for its crimes. That, Western diplomats say, is what does not exist now.

(Photograph omitted)