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Jury Still Out on Bosnian War Crimes Tribunal Created by U.N. : Balkans: Slow start, politics and lack of finances imperil attempt to bring perpetrators of atrocities to justice.

December 25, 1993|STANLEY MEISLER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

UNITED NATIONS — The facts are clear: In May and June of 1992, Serbian police, soldiers and Chetniks rounded up thousands of Muslims and some Croats from the river town of Brcko in northern Bosnia-Herzegovina and killed, tortured, mutilated or raped most of them.

Monika, a young Serbian woman in her early 20s, the daughter of a well-known prostitute, supervised some of the torture in the river warehouse that served as the prison.

She relished watching young, handsome male prisoners sodomize each other under threat of death; she led a posse that rounded up teen-age girls in town for the pleasure of the prison commander and his aides.

The Chetniks--bands of ultranationalist Serbian irregulars--carved crosses into the foreheads of half the Muslim prisoners; 50 men were castrated.

In all, perhaps 3,000 victims--all but a handful men, all but a handful Muslim--were executed. Their bodies first were dumped in the Sava River. Later, guards disposed of the bodies in boiling vats.

All these grisly details have been compiled by U.S. State Department investigators and turned over to the U.N. Security Council for eventual use by the prosecutor of the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal.

Yet--though the facts are clear--it is still by no means certain that any of the guilty at Brcko and other stricken towns will ever be punished.

U.S. officials managed to amass such excruciating detail about Brcko because the Serbs there had no reason to hide their savagery. They wanted to panic Muslims into flight.

Brcko--a town of 85,000 dominated by a plurality of Muslims--is a strategic crossroads and river town on a stretch of land connecting Serbia with the Serb-dominated areas of Bosnia.

In the sickening phrase that now epitomizes the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Brcko had to be "ethnically cleansed" so Serbs would no longer be separated by a stretch of land dominated by others. The Serbian commander and torturers apparently acted with impunity, with the cold confidence that no one had the right or means to heap retribution upon them.

But retribution could come.

Since the terrible days of Brcko's torment, the Security Council has created the War Crimes Tribunal and charged it with condemning and punishing the perpetrators of this and other crimes in the war in the former Yugoslav federation.

Although the Serbs face the bulk of the accusations, including "ethnic cleansing" as a deliberate policy, Croatian and Muslim units have also been blamed for war crimes.

After some squabbling, the council has chosen a prosecutor. The judges of the tribunal have held their first meeting in The Hague in the Netherlands. A Commission of Experts is assembling details for a sweeping report on the bestiality in Bosnia.

But some human rights advocates are worried.

The prosecutor, Atty. Gen. Ramon Escovar Salom of Venezuela, will probably not even start work until February. No one is sure whether he will pursue leads aggressively. There is even a fear that the tribunal may be bartered out of existence in a future peace settlement.

Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, observes that the U.N. process is "going very slowly. The good news is that the tribunal has been established and at long last a prosecutor has been named. The bad news is that the prosecutor hasn't even gotten to The Hague (except for the ceremonial opening) to hire a staff, and there's no money to do it even if he was available. I have great doubts of the commitment of the U.N. to make the tribunal a reality."

But U.S. Ambassador Madeleine Albright, one of the tribunal's staunchest defenders at the U.N., insists that the tribunal will succeed and "will establish the historical record before the guilty can reinvent the truth."

Albright, who has described the killing in Bosnia as "Europe's most systematic butchery since the Nazis during World War II," acknowledges that governments will probably refuse to give up indicted citizens for trial at The Hague.

But she wrote in a recent newspaper article that "these sheltered fugitives will become international pariahs, subject to immediate detention and extradition by any country."

An American lawyer who has collected war crimes evidence for the United Nations says, "The War Crimes Tribunal will be regarded as successful if the people who gave the orders are at least indicted and made to live the life of Joseph Mengele."

The Clinton Administration's attitude may be critical. The U.S. government first proposed the War Crimes Tribunal, and Albright worked hard to ensure that the Security Council put life into it.

No other government has come anywhere near supplying as much evidence to the Security Council as the United States.

The White House has appointed an interagency committee to assemble even more evidence, some of it classified, for the prosecutor. The Administration also plans to lend U.S. government lawyers and investigators to the prosecutor if needed.

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