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Bush Urges End to International War Crimes Tribunals in Six Years

By Paul Richter
LOS ANGELES TIMES -- washington

Even as a U.N. war crimes tribunal pressed ahead with the trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, the Bush administration Thursday denounced such courts as wasteful and mismanaged, and urged their abolition by 2008.

In congressional testimony, State Department official Pierre-Richard Prosper cited problems “that challenge the integrity of the process” and raise questions about “the professionalism of the personnel.”

He said the tribunals should “aggressively focus on the end game and conclude their work by 2007-2008.”

Washington’s opposition to the tribunals -- prosecuting cases in the Balkans and Rwanda -- and to a permanent international criminal court that comes into being in August has become another source of complaints from U.S. allies about the administration’s rejection of international institutions.

U.S. governments have supported such court proceedings since the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals, and the trials of the ousted Yugoslav strongman and former Rwandan leaders who stand accused in their country’s 1994 genocide were organized with U.S. leadership.

Defenders of the U.N. tribunals criticized the administration for taking on the tribunals at the moment when they have achieved what is arguably their greatest success, the first war crimes trial of a head of state. The U.S. challenge, they said, could strengthen Milosevic’s claims that the U.N. trials are a highly politicized victor’s justice.

William Pace, who heads a group that supports the permanent International Criminal Court, said the timing of the administration’s attack suggests that officials are laying the groundwork for a campaign to discredit the new international forum.

Citing America’s sponsorship of a string of past war crimes trials, he said U.S. officials “know better than anyone that in failed states and rogue states, the only alternative to no justice is international justice. ... After 45 or 50 years of supporting tribunals, this is a policy in favor of impunity” for the world’s Hitlers and Pol Pots.

But Bush administration officials fear that such courts can infringe on U.S. sovereignty. In particular, they worry that U.S. military officials might one day be put in the dock for alleged crimes committed during overseas deployments. The administration argues that such tribunals create a dangerous dependency on international institutions and argue that defendants should be treated instead by national legal systems.

They contend that the U.N. war crimes tribunals have been wastefully expensive, poorly supervised and abused by some of the lawyers and defendants for their own enrichment.

The tribunals set up in the Netherlands and Tanzania have each cost about $100 million a year. In both, there have been allegations that some defense lawyers inflated their bills and divided the proceeds with their clients.

U.S. officials have also suggested that Carla del Ponte, the chief prosecutor at The Hague, shouldn’t press ahead with plans to indict dozens more Balkans war figures, because doing so would cause the trials to drag on too long. They believe lower-level defendants should be tried in national courts.

The State Department’s Prosper, who prosecuted crimes from the Rwanda war, said that the process “at times has been too costly, has lacked efficiency, has been too slow and has been too removed from the everyday experience of the people and the victims.”