AFTER 16 months of delays, the first international war crimes trials since Nuremberg got a needed boost Aug. 15 when South African Judge Richard Goldstone took over as chief prosecutor of the United Nations war crimes tribunal on the former Yugoslavia. Progress on these trials has been slow at best, though not for lack of evidence. Last week Judge Goldstone met at The Hague with Cherif Bassiouni, the tribunal's chairman of the commission of experts, who, with a small dedicated staff of lawyers, most of whom work pro bono, has compiled 65,000 pages of documents based on 6,000 eyewitness incidents of atrocities, the bulk of which are Serb crimes against Muslims in Bosnia. The US State Department has corroborated these with several thousand highly detailed pages of its own. In June, a UN War Crimes Commission report concluded that the Bosnian Muslims were the victims of ``crimes against humanity.''
The months of delay over war crimes prosecution on the former Yugoslavia is not due to legal capability but to political fear. After all, there never have been trials for crimes against humanity where the defendants are state officials who not only remain in office but are involved in spirited negotiations with Western diplomats. A prosecutor who might vigorously prosecute Bosnian atrocities in the midst of ``peace talks'' could be an embarrassment for those governments conducting negotiations. Many governments involved in Bosnia would like to sweep the specific truth about war crimes under the rug.
As Mr. Goldstone takes over these UN-sponsored trials, the big question is whether he can operate independently. The new prosecutor, head of the 1992 Goldstone Commission in South Africa, was an excellent choice under the circumstances. But to be effective, he must gain control of a tangled UN process, choose his own personnel, and win a discretionary budget. If the war crimes trials are to be a success and not a charade, more than just the sergeants who pulled the trigger or the majors who commanded the death camps must be indicted. The generals and politicians who gave the orders leading to genocide and war must be indicted.
To do this, Goldstone needs the firm backing of the United States. Some Security Council members wanted a weak prosecutor. In October, after months of bickering, Venezuelan Ramon Escovar Salon was given the job. The most knowledgeable candidate, Mr. Bassiouni, an American law professor backed by UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright, was blocked, ostensibly because his Muslim background and zeal to prosecute might bias him. Then in February, having only set foot in The Hague once, Mr. Escovar resigned to become Venezuelan minister of the interior. Not until July, six new candidates later, did Goldstone get the job.
The wait may have been worth it. In May 1993 Goldstone was on the short list of those who wanted a real trial. But he was so respected in South Africa for investigating police complicity in election violence that Nelson Mandela wouldn't spare him.
However, Goldstone must deal with a process not yet set up to be effective. The most important item is the budget. Some $32.5 million has been proposed for 1994 and 1995, of which only $11 million has been allocated. Most of the budget - $32 million - is salaries for judges and lawyers. The 11 war crimes judges make $145,000 and have been sitting in the Hague with little to do since January.
The most telling item is the prosecutor's budget. This involves travel, forensic work, tracking new war crimes, interviews, witness transport, document compiling - the real labor of building a case. It covers areas such as death camps, rape, shelling of civilian targets, mass graves, and destruction of monuments.
The cost to prosecute crime boss John Gotti was $75 million. Iran-contra, examining an illegal layer of federal activity, was $40 million. Yet for the first international war crimes trial since Nuremberg, it was proposed that the prosecutor get $8.7 million, of which only $550,000 was for investigations. For the 150 cases, Thomas Warrick of the law firm Pierson, Semmes, and Bemis in Washington figures that ``the budget they put together last year was $20 million short of what they need for a minimally credible prosecution.''
With a heavy layer of lawyers and judges but not much case-building, the tribunal will become a kind of brontosaurus - a creature with a huge body but a pea brain, slow-moving and not effective.
Goldstone also faces petty problems: The historian for the prosecutor's office does not speak Serbo-Croatian. The librarian hired by the UN has a background not in law but in musicology. The computer system at The Hague is far more complicated than the lawyers were ready for.
Still, inertia is the main hurdle. A successful war crimes trial has direct ``policy implications.'' Though the tribunal has received little attention of late, if taken seriously it raises all the questions of conscience that governments have wanted to avoid: Is the West prepared to accept borders created by genocide? Why are Western leaders negotiating with war criminals?
As a current State Department official, Richard Johnson, notes in ``The Pinstripe Approach to Genocide,'' a paper prepared for the National War College, the US hasn't called Serb actions in Bosnia ``genocide,'' not because they aren't, but because to do so would require the US to act.
Ms. Albright, alone among US officials, has supported the tribunal. The White House should back her in engaging European states. Tying their support of the tribunal to US support for the contact group is one idea. Albright can urge Goldstone to examine the officials named by former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger for ``crimes against humanity,'' including the president of Serbia, the general of the Bosnian Serbs, and the president of the so-called Bosnian-Serb republic.
The deputy war crimes prosecutor has said publicly that he expects the first indictments to appear this fall. The character of the trial, and of Goldstone's role, will be evident by who is indicted. The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts by mail to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.