Human rights at 50: a growing trend to intervene

A shift in the thinking that the world should not stay out of all countries' affairs.

Gen. Radislav Kristic was surprised.

US troops arrested the Serb army commander Dec. 3 and flew him to this Dutch city to face genocide charges in connection with the worst massacre of Muslim civilians in Bosnia. He is the highest-ranking suspect so far taken into custody.

Five decades after the United Nations proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights on Dec. 10, 1948, the Hague tribunal illustrates both the victories and defeats of human rights law.

Detention without charges and allegations of government-sanctioned torture and killing continue worldwide, including in the former Yugoslavia. And yet, as the Kristic arrest shows, international human rights law has begun to have an impact. Along with a UN tribunal in Tanzania on the Rwandan genocide, this tribunal marks the first time an independent, international body has convened to judge crimes against humanity.

It comes on the heels of Britain's arrest of Chilean Gen. Augusto Pinochet, who was seized while in London for a medical procedure.

Until his capture, General Kristic didn't know he was under indictment.

"Sealed warrants make our work much more effective," explains Louise Arbour, chief prosecutor of the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. "Anybody who commits war crimes must now think twice."

Until now, diplomats fought the idea of intervening in other states' internal affairs. But the world is saying that some crimes are so horrific that they override national jurisdiction.

Talks have moved forward, for example, on setting up an international court for Cambodia to address the genocide of an estimated 2 million in the 1970s at the hands of the Khmer Rouge.

Kristic is accused of organizing the massacre of as many as 8,000 Muslim civilians after his troops overran the enclave of Srebrenica.

"This is a laboratory for international justice," asserts Ms. Arbour, a former Canadian judge. Unlike the Nuremberg trials of Nazi leaders, hers is not a court where victors are trying the vanquished, she explains, but an impartial attempt to judge all the parties.

Some 50 nationalities work at the tribunal. "We are setting a legal precedent and showing the world how victims can receive justice," Ms. Arbour says. Her ultimate goal? To break the cycle of ethnic killings around the world.

The US role in this effort appears contradictory. Washington welcomed the initial UN human rights declaration and supports the Hague tribunal. US troops in Bosnia arrested Kristic. Eight US government staff serve as prosecutors and judges, the most from any single country.

But Washington does not support a treaty establishing a permanent international war crimes court. Some in Washington balk at a court that could put an American in the dock.

From 'fig leaf' to force

When the Hague tribunal first came into existence in 1993, it highlighted international impotence. Local Bosnian authorities, particularly the Serbs and Croats, offered minimal cooperation. Many of the men indicted - including Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic - remain free. Their chief, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, has not been charged.

"At first, the tribunal looked like a real fig leaf," recalls Lars van Troost of Amnesty International. "The big fish went free." But lately the tribunal has made significant strides. From an initial $275,000 appropriation in 1992, the UN General Assembly now has approved a budget of $64 million for 1998.

The tribunal now has 25 accused in custody and is currently trying eight defendants. Five already have been convicted and sentenced. Over the past year and a half, NATO troops in the former Yugoslavia have begun arresting accused indicted criminals and flying them to The Hague. Other accused have surrendered.

"Step by step, the tribunal is turning out better than we ever thought," says Amnesty International's Mr. van Troost.

Strides in Africa, too

The Rwandan tribunal, being held in Arusha, Tanzania, may be doing even better. It has 32 of its 45 suspects in custody and has managed to round up senior figures. In September, the tribunal convicted former Rwandan prime minister Jean Kambanda for genocide and former mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu.

Optimists say the tribunal is expanding into an important force for deterrence. "A lot of people in Bosnia aren't sleeping very well out of fear they are on the sealed secret list [of indictments]," says Kathy Ward, the Hague observer of the Coalition for International Justice.

Arbour has sent investigators to Kosovo, to see whether indictments are warranted in the wake of the Serb offensive there against ethnic Albanians. "We hope the strong, immediate investigation of Kosovo will make the Serbs think twice," Ms. Ward says.

In the end, no international court will be able to bring to justice more than a fraction of world's war criminals. But legal experts say the Hague tribunal has shown that intentional prosecutions can be fair. One Bosnian Muslim commander was acquitted recently because the prosecution failed to show he had command responsibility over a prison camp.

"In almost every case, important legal precedents are being made," says Cynthia McMurrey, an American defense lawyer. "All of us feel we are participating in history."

For those who commit the world's gravest crime, the message is clear: Don't expect any more immunity.

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