THE HAGUE — JUST days before the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia starts its first trial, investigators are scaling back trips and translators are being viewed as luxury items.
Under intense pressure from a financial crisis the US Congress has helped fuel, spending restrictions set by the UN secretary-general are preventing the world's first war crimes tribunal since World War II from sending investigators into the field or hiring staff.
Weeks after some of the worst war crimes in the Yugoslav conflict were allegedly committed by Bosnian Serb soldiers in taking the UN ''safe area'' of Srebrenica in July and the Croatian Army's retaking of the Serb-held Krajina region in August, some UN investigators are chained to their desks in this picturesque Dutch city.
''If there were four people ... now we're sending two,'' says a senior Tribunal official requesting anonymity. ''If this continues, a total ban on travel could be possible.'' The situation is becoming so dire that the Tribunal's justices are expected to make a personal appeal to UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali for funds over the next few days.
Republican Congressional leaders are tightening the purse strings on what they say is a bloated UN, but the Tribunal - the UN body the US says it supports the most - is being punished for it.
Decisions in Washington budget committees on Capital Hill could soon be making 42 Bosnian Serbs indicted as suspected war criminals - including Bosnian Serb political and military leaders Radovan Karadzic, Gen. Ratko Mladic and one indicted Croat - rest easier.
The UN is owed more than $3.4 billion by its member states, and at least $1.2 billion - or 30 percent - of the unpaid dues are American. The US set up two $3 million funds for tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda to prevent the tribunals from suffering under UN budgetary problems, but those funds are also being restricted by Boutros-Ghali's cost-cutting measures.
''It's coming just when the Tribunal was moving at good speed,'' says the senior Tribunal official. ''How can we indict someone now whose case is never going to be tried?'' he asks.
''You are branding someone as a possible war criminal, and you have to give them a right to defend themselves,'' he adds.
More indictments, possibly related to Srebrenica, are expected to be announced by the Tribunal in the next few weeks.
On Monday, the two-year-old body will begin its first public trial. Dragan Nikolic, the Bosnian Serb commander of the Susica prison camp near Vlasenica in 1992 is being tried in absentia for murdering and mutilating Muslim prisoners.
Next month, the Tribunal is set to begin the trial of the only suspected war criminal it has in custody, Dusan Tadic. The former Bosnian Serb prison camp guard has been accused by inmates for killing, raping, and torturing Muslims at the Omarska prison camp in northern Bosnia in 1992.
Since its creation, the Tribunal has struggled with constant funding problems. Its $28.3 million budget was finally approved at the end of this summer, but the restrictions have now put that in doubt.
''It is not yet sure whether the full budget will be at the Tribunal's disposal,'' Tribunal spokesman Christian Chartier told reporters last week. ''[This] may hinder the undertaking of new investigations.''
The Tribunal's chief justice, South African Jurist Richard Goldstone, has repeatedly warned that trials will not be carried out unless they are conducted properly.
Over the last year, the Tribunal's staff has grown from around 70 to 250. Roughly 145 of the staff are investigators or prosecutors. But many of the witnesses and some of the criminals they are pursuing are refugees spread across Europe.
Mr. Tadic, the former Omarska prison guard expected to stand trial in November, was arrested in Munich, Germany, in 1993 after he was recognized by two Muslim refugees. The Bosnian Serb was one of tens of thousands of refugees from the former Yugoslavia who had fled the conflict to settle in Europe and North America.
The case-by-case review process on trips and new spending is likely to slow a body that has already been criticized for its tortoise-like progress. With only one suspect in custody and Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic refusing to turn over indicted war criminals, its effectiveness has been questioned by some.
Tadic was a guard at Omarska, considered the worst of dozens of secret Bosnian Serb prison camps. Hundreds of Muslims and Croats, many of whom were business, political, art, or intellectual leaders, were beaten and killed there, according to many survivors.
In one incident, Tadic reportedly beat three Muslim men severely and threw them into a ditch full of motor oil. All three prisoners died.
Tadic has been charged for war crimes he allegedly committed in the Keraterm and Trnopolje camps in the same region, Tribunal spokesman Chartier announced last Tuesday. Tadic has also been charged with committing atrocities while aiding in the ''ethnic cleansing'' of Muslims from towns in the area.
Whether more suspects like Tadic can be found and tried depends in the end on money, Tribunal officials say. The only UN body in the former Yugoslavia that retains some form of credibility appears to be on the verge of losing it.
''This is an urgent situation that must be addressed,''says the Tribunal official. ''The investigations are going well, there is only one main reason to be concerned - finances.''