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U.N. Creates Tribunal to Try War Crimes in Yugoslav Warfare

By Julia Preston
The Washington Post


The U.N. Security Council voted unanimously Monday to establish an international tribunal to prosecute war crimes perpetrated during more than a year and a half of Yugoslav factional warfare.

The panel will be the first set up by the United Nations to try crimes against humanity and the first internationally mandated forum to deal with such crimes since the Nuremberg trials of top Nazi leaders after World War II.

Voting on a French proposal, the 15-nation Security Council asked U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali to prepare a report within 60 days detailing the specific structure and procedures of the tribunal, whose members will likely be drawn from internationally recognized judicial bodies, such as the World Court at the Hague.

"There is an echo in this chamber today," said U.S. Ambassador Madeleine K. Albright. "The Nuremberg principles have been reaffirmed. The lesson that we are all accountable to international law may finally have taken hold in our collective memory."

"This will be no victor's tribunal," Albright added, referring to criticism raised during the Nuremberg trials that those proceedings administered justice only as the victorious World War II Allies defined it. In the same vein, the U.S.-based organization Human Rights Watch noted that in some respects the new tribunal "is even more important" than Nuremberg.

"Now, for the first time," the group said, "the world community is acting to bring the apparent victors to judgment for their crimes" -- a reference to powerful Serb nationalist forces that have seized vast tracts of territory in two Balkan republics and against whom most war crimes allegations have been lodged.

Security Council diplomats said they expect the new tribunal -- a body whose scope is limited to the territory of the former six-republic Yugoslav federation -- can be created without time-consuming disputes, because international laws governing war crimes have been extensively codified in the four decades since Nuremberg.

France, Italy and the 52-Nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe have submitted proposals suggesting how the tribunal should operate, but one key aspect that remains unclear is how unwilling defendants would be brought to trial. The French proposal recommends that as a last resort accused persons should be tried in absentia; possible sentences could include long prison terms, but current recommendations exclude the death penalty.

In a Feb. 10 report to the Security Council -- based on findings of a U.N. investigative team -- Boutros-Ghali declared that "grave breaches" of international norms had been committed in the Balkan fighting -- which broke out in earnest between Croats and Serbs in Croatia in June 1991 and continues unabated among the Serbs, Croats and Slavic Muslims of neighboring Bosnia.

The report cited evidence of mass killings and systematic rape, torture of prisoners, wholesale destruction of civilian homes and towns and the violent dislocation of rival communal groups known as "ethnic cleansing." U.N. officials and human rights observers have noted that all the warring factions have been guilty of war crimes but that the overwhelming preponderance of them were committed by Serb nationalist forces.

Last fall, Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger singled out a number of top Serb politicians and military figures -- including Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his powerful patron in neighboring Serbia, President Slobodan Milosevic -- as ultimately responsible for war crimes committed by their underlings.

One of the first such incidents the tribunal will investigate is the disappearance of more than 200 wounded Croats from a hospital in the Croatian city of Vukovar that was forcibly evacuated by Serb militiamen and members of the Serb-led Yugoslv army in November 1991. U.N-sponsored forensic experts have examined a grave site near Vukovar and have concluded that a mass execution may have occurred there and that the victims may have been the hospitalized Croats.

Although it will be some months before formal judicial proceedings can begin, the Security Council declared that the tribunal should serve as a deterrent to new crimes in the continuing Balkan warfare.

Muhamed Sacirbey, who represents Bosnia's Muslim-led government at the United Nations, hailed creation of the tribunal as "maybe the one U.N. resolution that in the long term will define the peace in our country." But he also declared that "we shouldn't kid ourselves" into believing that the U.N. move will stop further Serb aggression. Albright noted, however, that the establishment of the tribunal was not intended to discourage Serb participation in continuing peace negotiations among the warring parties. "This is not a bargaining process," she said. "These are two different actions on two separate tracks."

Karadzic, who leads the Bosnian Serb delegation to peace talks here, has vehemently opposed any tribunal set up only to issue judgments on the Yugoslav conflict. "It is a dangerous procedure, open to abuses," he said in a recent interview.