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WORLD REPORT PROFILE : Richard J. Goldstone : A South African jurist takes on Balkan and Rwanda conflicts, seeking to punish war criminals.

March 14, 1995|SUDARSAN RAGHAVAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — Even as a student leader at college, Richard J. Goldstone was making news.

In 1958, the young activist exposed a spy sent by South Africa's infamous security police to infiltrate the ranks of a burgeoning anti-apartheid student movement at Johannesburg's liberal University of Witwatersrand. Goldstone quizzed the woman in a sweltering campus room and recorded every word on a concealed tape recorder. Later, the tape was used as evidence in the firing of the national police commissioner.

Now Goldstone, more than ever, makes it into the world's headlines.

The cagey South African judge is head of the U.N. war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the first international bodies to try accused war criminals since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials after World War II.

Last month, his prosecutors indicted 21 Bosnian Serbs for the murders and rapes of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats in 1992 at Omarska, a death camp in Bosnia. Goldstone said the Rwanda tribunal may also try its first case by the end of year.

An outspoken, charismatic man with a resonant voice, Goldstone effuses a sense of deep commitment, particularly to the role of the United Nations as a global adjudicator.

"The U.N. believes rather wisely that bringing to justice people who've committed grave violations of international humanitarian law aids the peace process," Goldstone, 56, said in a recent interview here. "For the first time, the international community has given notice to leaders of all countries that if they disregard human rights on this sort of scale, the international community is no longer going to stand for it."

Goldstone may be overly optimistic.

Critics point out that justice inevitably will be incomplete in the tribunals, especially in Rwanda, where tens of thousands of Hutus are believed to have committed atrocities in a genocidal campaign that left at least half a million rival Tutsis dead.

"The U.N. has been slow in setting up the tribunal in Rwanda and providing resources," said Shadrack Gutto, an international law professor at the University of Witwatersrand.

Goldstone blames an inefficient U.N. bureaucracy for the delays in setting the tribunals. But he conceded that the holdups, combined with widespread public outcry for action, have created a major "credibility problem for the tribunal."

"Ever since I've been in office this has presented me with a tremendous feeling of urgency in getting things going on the one hand, but a refusal to compromise on standards of investigation on the other," he added.

Goldstone's dilemma mirrors his upbringing. He was born in a right-wing, whites-only Johannesburg suburb to liberal Jewish parents who strongly opposed the racist politics of the era. His mother's family hailed from England, and his father's ancestors had immigrated from Lithuania in the 19th Century.

Goldstone credits his maternal grandfather with teaching him about the law, though he wasn't a lawyer.

"I hadn't had any doubts since the age of four about entering the legal profession," said Goldstone. "I spent a lot of my childhood with him."

He considers the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war criminals "an inspiration," although none of his relatives died in the Holocaust. He says being Jewish, part of a community that has been persecuted throughout history, shaped his ethical views from an early age.

Goldstone headed a commercial law firm after passing the bar. But he won prominence in the 1980s after he was appointed to the bench and offered a sympathetic ear to South Africa's human rights lawyers, political prisoners and anti-apartheid activists. Unlike many other judges, Goldstone refused to kowtow to the government.

With his independence assured, Goldstone was chosen to head a controversial judicial commission in 1991, a year after apartheid began to crumble. The goal was to investigate the political violence ravaging South Africa in the period preceding the country's first democratic elections last April.

Only one major trial resulted from the three-year probe, however. An alleged police hit squad commander, Col. Eugene de Kock, is charged with 121 counts of murder, kidnaping and other crimes. Critics say Goldstone could have achieved more.

"He could have been much tougher and wiser from the beginning," said Alister Sparks, a South African author and political analyst. "By the time he got into the investigations, much of the evidence had been shredded."

Goldstone relocated to The Hague in the Netherlands last July after he was appointed to take on the Balkans prosecution. He came with an important lesson from South Africa.

"It's not enough that people know what happened," Goldstone said. "They want official acknowledgment." That's what he hopes to give the survivors of Rwanda's genocide.

Five weeks ago, the tribunal opened an office in the Rwandan capital, Kigali, and has begun to gather evidence.

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