UNITED NATIONS, N.Y. — FOR the first time since World War II, the world community is demanding justice for victims of war crimes.
Hundreds of thousands of civilians have been murdered, tortured, raped, and unlawfully imprisoned in the former Yugolsavia and Rwanda. Many Bosnian Serbs and Rwandan Hutus are accused of genocide - the planned destruction of an ethnic, religious, or racial group.
Victims and witnesses have told heart-rending stories, often from the safety of other countries where they have fled for refuge. They tell of forced evictions from entire villages and of brutal attacks and mutilation.
United Nations-initiated efforts to collect evidence and prosecute those allegedly responsible for war crimes in both the Rwandan and Yugoslav conflicts are farthest along in the former Yugoslavia.
Working since the fall of 1992, a commission of experts named by UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali has collected more than 65,000 pages of evidence and 300 hours of videotape. All of it is now in The Hague at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, an 11-judge body established by the UN Security Council in May 1993.
South African Judge Richard Goldstone, just approved by the Security Council in July as the prosecutor of that court, will begin to analyze and verify the evidence with his staff when he takes office August 15.
Cherif Bassiouni, who headed the five-member commission of experts and its team of about 30 volunteer and paid staff, is an Egyptian-born professor of law at Chicago's De Paul University. Since the UN gave him no resources for operations, he has raised much of the funds he needed from foundations.
Professor Bassiouni says the Commission conducted about 35 investigative missions of its own ranging from interviews with rape victims to examination of mass graves.
The group also took in data collected by governments such as the US (which sent teams to interview refugees in third countries), Britain, Austria, Germany, and Sweden; from the warring parties themselves in Yugoslavia; and from nongovernmental groups. Helsinki Watch, for example, produced two thick volumes of case studies.
The final report of Bassiouni's Commission, issued in May, concluded that crimes committed against civilians in the former Yugoslavia have been ``particularly brutal and ferocious'' and that the practice of ``ethnic cleansing'' (a relatively new term implying forced ethnic homogeneity) of whole towns, sexual assault, and rape have been carried out so systematically as to appear ``the product of a policy.''
On July 1, the UN Security Council asked Mr. Boutros-Ghali to tap a three-member commission of experts to begin a similar effort to gather evidence of war crimes in Rwanda.
Though vowing no reprisals, officials of the new government in Kigali estimate that some 300 to 400 Hutu extremists should be brought to trial for their role in civilian massacres that occurred over the last three months. Many Rwanda Hutu militia and army personnel are now reluctant to return to their homes from Zaire.
As in the former Yugoslavia, frequent, detailed reports from special rapporteurs dispatched to Rwanda by the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva will play a major role in contributing evidence.
As of this writing, no members of the Geneva-based Rwanda commission of experts have been named. UN spokesman Joe Sills says it has been extremely difficult to quickly find qualified people for the assignment.
If the Rwanda case follows the Yugoslav example, a tribunal to prosecute the cases developed will follow. There has been some talk among UN diplomats of using the same tribunal and expanding its jurisdiction with a separate prosecution staff.
Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth says the mix makes sense. ``If the Security Council is serious about bringing the killers to justice in Rwanda,'' he says, ``it would be much better to simply build upon the existing institution rather than start from scratch.''
Since an elaborate and well-supported effort to ``right wrongs'' on the continent of Europe is in place, it is highly important that a similar effort be made in the heart of Africa, where war crimes appear to have been committed on an even grander scale, says John Lawrence Hargrove, former executive director of the American Society of International Law.
Yet even with all the evidence and a new prosecutor in place at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, there have been few discernible signs of forward motion.
Judge Goldstone, who has won widespread praise for his tough but fair-minded approach to a recent investigation he headed into violence and human rights abuse in South Africa, says he is confident that the tribunal will issue some indictments before the end of the year. ``Serious abuses of human rights are a matter of concern to the international community,'' he says, ``not just to [individual] countries.''
Bassiouni, who is clearly disappointed with the lack of action so far on the evidence his team has gathered, has his doubts that the prosecutors will pursue those accused of spearheading war crimes or that any action will be taken soon.
``It's quite obvious that [the prosecutors] can't go after the people they're courting to make a peace agreement,'' he says. ``There are those who hope that nothing will be done until there is an agreement and there are those who feel, like myself, that the course of justice should go on irrespective of what the politics are.''
Veteran New York human rights activist Felice Gaer says any Yugoslav peace talks should include specific discussion of the need to hand over for trial anyone accused by the Hague Yugoslav tribunal.
The key problem, says Bassiouni, is not with the prosecutor. ``It's a question of whether he will have the necessary finances and the political will of governments to support him in his work,'' he says. ``Don't underestimate the power of bureaucracy and financial restrictions to tie you down. I've battled it for two years as chairman of the Commission.''
One major early challenge facing the former- Yugoslavia tribunal will be to determine the precise character of the war - civil, international, or other - occurring at different periods in the conflict, Bassiouni says. The nature of the conflict, he says, determines which kinds of crimes apply.
Only crimes committed against humanity (murder, enslavement, etc.) and genocide apply to all kinds of conflict, he says.
Noting that the Genocide Convention of 1948 makes no mention of attempted destruction of political or social groups, Bassiouni says that technical omission is a major reason that no global attempt was made to prosecute the Khmer Rouge for atrocities committed in Cambodia under Pol Pot. Also a factor, he says, just as in Bosnia-Herzegovina now, was the ongoing peace process and the US decision to support Khmer Rouge inclusion in the peace negotiations.
Another potential genocide case, he says, was dropped in the 1970s when the new nation of Bangladesh, which with India had planned to file suit at the International Court of Justice against Pakistan, opted to accept early diplomatic recognition from Pakistan and the freeing of certain assets instead.
The powers of tribunal at The Hague to try people for war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia are strictly limited. Though several nations such as Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland plan to turn over suspected war criminals to The Hague court, the tribunal cannot force extradition. Nor can any trials be held in which those accused are not present.
Yet legal experts say the very naming of individuals and publicizing of detailed indictments amount to a stigma that would only increase if nations refuse to release them. Any attempt at travel could also lead to arrest by another country.
The practical result is ``a very serious sanction on the individuals involved'' and possible deterrence, says Mr. Hargrove, now an international lawyer in Washington. ``In the next Bosnia or the next Rwanda, people in the field and their commanders would be much more keenly aware of the possibility that they cannot commit these acts with impunity.''
Judge Goldstone says that if nations do not turn over accused war criminals, any further action is up to the Security Council. ``It's a matter really of UN-member resolve,'' he says.
While still at an early stage, the UN moves to prosecute war crimes in both the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda amount to a major step forward, analysts say.
``Until now when a government committed a serious human rights violation, you could condemn it...or impose economic sanctions,'' says Roth of Human Rights Watch. ``Now suddenly there's a third option. In limited cases you can bring a perpetrator to trial. This is a powerful new weapon in the arsenal of the human rights movement.''
Another effect of the new UN moves has been to give a major boost to a long-discussed UN effort to establish an international criminal court. Last month, the Geneva-based International Law Commission, a group of 34 experts representing the world's main legal systems set up by the UN General Assembly in 1947, adopted a draft statute for such a court.
The proposal has a ``fair chance'' of gaining UN General Assembly approval when the 184-member body takes up the issue in the fall, according to Frederic Kirgis, an international law professor at Washington and Lee University in Virginia.
Much will now depend on the track record developed at The Hague tribunal to prosecute war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.
``The jury is still out on whether establishment of the tribunal will achieve the complete desired result,'' Bassiouni comments. ``There are hurdles that can be overcome, but I don't think we should minimize what needs to be done.''