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Top U.N. Prosecutor May Soon Quit Post

Tribunal: Louise Arbour, a candidate for Canada's high court, is said to be trying to wrap up indictments.


UNITED NATIONS — Racing against the clock, international criminal prosecutor Louise Arbour was trying to wrap up possible indictments this week against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and others before quitting her post to take a seat on the Canadian Supreme Court, according to U.N. and Canadian sources.

Arbour, who has scheduled a news conference in The Hague today amid strong indications that she will announce major indictments related to the Balkans, is arguably the highest-ranking Canadian on the world stage. Currently the chief U.N. prosecutor for war crimes committed in Rwanda and the Balkans, she is a leading candidate for the high court seat that will be vacated Tuesday.

Sources in New York say she is planning to quit her U.N. post once she has signed a final set of indictments. In the past month, she has gathered data and other evidence of alleged Yugoslav war crimes in visits to NATO member capitals, and her investigators have extensively interviewed Kosovo refugees driven from their homeland by Yugoslav forces.

Arbour's spokesman, Paul Risley, told journalists in Albania on Tuesday that the "brutal efficiency" of war crimes in Kosovo, a province of Yugoslavia's Republic of Serbia, "would indicate responsibility very high up the chain of command."

Some activists fear that prosecution of war crimes could be hindered if Arbour quits her U.N. post without taking the cases to trial.

"She has done such a professional job, she's been so dogged . . . it would be a shame to switch horses in midstream," said Reed Brody, advocacy director for Human Rights Watch in New York.

Her departure could plunge the U.N. Security Council into a lengthy stalemate over finding a replacement, weaken the fledgling international court system and cost Canada dearly sought stature and credibility in world affairs.

Most damaging, it could halt any new war crimes indictments for the foreseeable future. U.N. legal analysts say indictments can be signed only by the chief prosecutor, not an acting or deputy prosecutor.

"The statute says the prosecutor prepares the indictment, capital P," said David Hutchinson, a U.N. legal officer. "Nobody wants to risk the accused saying, 'Throw my case out,' because the indictment is signed by Joe Schmo rather than the real McCoy."

Legal experts at some Western missions question that assertion, saying an acting prosecutor can sign indictments. Nevertheless, Arbour's departure, along with the already announced exit of chief Judge Gabrielle Kirk MacDonald, would rob the tribunal of seasoned professionals.

"A Supreme Court seat doesn't come up every week, but we would love her to continue at least a bit longer," said Jeremy Greenstock, Britain's ambassador to the United Nations. "She has the experience to carry the tribunal on through extremely difficult business in the Balkans."

Arbour may have won a short reprieve from the looming Tuesday deadline for the court appointment. A spokesman for Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien, who will make the final decision, said of the vacancy: "It might not be filled right away. . . . I have absolutely no idea when it may be filled."

Terry O'Sullivan, a longtime friend of Arbour and prominent Toronto attorney, said that, while the Supreme Court has a heavy workload, some vacancies in the past were not filled "for a few months."

Arbour did not respond to requests for comment. Two weeks ago, she said she had not received a definite offer for the Supreme Court seat at that point, but "if I have one, I will consider it."

Friends and others say that, as much as she would be missed, the decision is hers alone to make.

"It would be a great loss for the U.N., but of course we understand her desire to make the right choices for her personally," said Shashi Tharoor, a top advisor to U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

Arbour is described as a no-nonsense woman who sticks up for what is right. But she is physically and emotionally drained, according to friends and press reports. She and her husband are separated, and her two grown children are in Canada. In her three years as prosecutor, she has faced death threats in the Balkans, snide criticism from U.S. officials who wanted indictments to be issued faster and frustration with Western peacekeeping troops in Bosnia-Herzegovina who have not arrested highly visible suspects indicted on war crimes charges related to that nation's 1992-95 war.

"It's very obvious the toll the job takes," said O'Sullivan, who has known Arbour for 28 years. "You're never off duty."

O'Sullivan said he recalls Arbour--whom he values as a terrific mother, fine poker player and witty raconteur--saying, "I have no funny stories about my job."

Popular, if not beloved, in her homeland, Arbour would be closer to family and friends if she joined the high court. The post would also keep her in a comfortable job until 75, the retirement age for Canada's Supreme Court justices.

If Arbour steps down from her U.N. post before the end of her term next year, she would not be the first. Her predecessor, Richard Goldstone, left after two years to sit on South Africa's top court. But South African President Nelson Mandela had made it clear that Goldstone would serve only temporarily with the U.N., and Goldstone said there wasn't a chance he would have stayed.

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