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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Justice for War Crimes?

The two United Nations war crimes courts trying suspected ringleaders of the Rwandan and Yugoslav genocides have made some advances in the past few weeks. In Arusha, Tanzania, where the Rwanda tribunal sits, a trial has at last got underway after much legal procrastination. Meanwhile, four indictees believed to have masterminded the bloody, 1994 three-month genocide, in which an estimated 500,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were butchered, have finally been transferred from detention in Cameroon to the court's authority.

In The Hague meanwhile, where the Yugoslav court is based, a first conviction was handed down late last year. Another verdict is expected to be reached soon following the seven-month trial of a Bosnian Serb suspect. Prosecutors, promising fresh indictments, are eagerly awaiting the trials of another five suspects.

And yet the overall records of the Yugoslav and Rwanda courts, set up in 1993 and 1994 respectively, remain pretty dismal. Despite the recent successes, the statistics still do not make happy reading. They show millions of refugees, hundreds of thousands of deaths, countless atrocities, innumerable war crimes, unspeakable examples of man's inhumanity to man. Yet just 100 indictments in all were issued from both courts. Not even a fifth of those indicted are in custody, and only one has been convicted. And that resulted from a guilty plea.

In their defense, the courts themselves have pointed to myriad factors that have prevented them from prosecuting war criminals, from pursuing the rapists and ethnic cleansers of Bosnia's formerly tranquil eastern mountains, from convicting the butchers and multiple killers of Rwanda's unfathomable three-month killing spree.

Both tribunals suffered cash shortages and generally lacked resources to start with. Both have faced inevitable difficulties in assuring the interested parties of their total impartiality. Both have struggled to persuade witnesses to take the stand, relive their worst moments and put themselves and their families at risk of reprisals. And above all, both courts have suffered from the lack of a law enforcement agent that could arrest indictees and bring them to the courts to face their accusers.

Such impotence hints darkly that the two courts might never fully achieve their aims of providing, through justice, the much-needed catharsis for two regions still balanced precariously on the edge of the abyss of ethnic conflict. Without a law enforcement agent in Bosnia -- the NATO-led peace force has made it perfectly clear it will not go chasing after war criminals -- the Yugoslav court has one hand tied behind its back. It can issue all the indictments it likes but cannot resort to trial by absentia, and it hence relies wholly on the goodwill of the political factions in the region to comply with UN protocol and hand over the suspected murderers.

Unfortunately, goodwill has been hard to come by. While Serbia and Croatia remain in thrall to nationalism, the prospects for compliance are dim. There is scarcely a political leader in either country who would see his own war-crimes suspects handed over to The Hague while those of the adversary are protected and even decorated. In Bosnia itself, meanwhile, the Serbs, who comprise two-thirds of the indictee list, have made no secret of their contempt for the Hague court, whose legal jurisdiction they dismiss. They question in particular is why the international community has decided to pursue suspected war criminals now, for the first time since World War II, despite the numerous atrocities of scores of other civil conflicts which have raged in the interim.

As for the Rwanda court, for all its recent progress, it still has barely half its 21 indictees in custody and has for much of its two-year existence grappled with the physical problems of operating in a region lacking in infrastructure. Prosecutors have had difficulties hiring investigators, and translators have been in short supply. There have been reports of administrative incompetence and staff victimization. More seriously, three initial trials have been postponed, one of them three times over legal technicalities.

Meanwhile, local trials of suspected lesser butchers in Rwanda itself have proceeded apace in dubious legal processes where the death sentence is meted out almost as carelessly as it was during the genocide itself in 1994. The question Rwandan victims of the 1994 ethnic bloodbath want answered remains the same: Why are the small fry facing capital punishment in Rwandan courts while the ringleaders face mere jail terms in Arusha?

These are all pressing questions which the two courts must address, with greater will from the United Nations and its member nations, if the tribunals are to forge on and deliver justice. This is a crucial time for the UN and its new secretary general, Kofi Annan of Ghana, as it continues to try to redefine its post-Cold War role following ignominious setbacks for its peacekeepers. The idea of UN war crimes tribunals was initially appealing, given the hope that their justice would redress suffering from a distance without the need for heavy military commitments in trouble spots.

But the jury is still out on whether the two war crimes tribunals in existence, which after all are setting an important precedent as the first such courts since Nuremberg, can muster the authority to fire a warning to would-be war criminals that they cannot get away with genocide, rape, torture and other crimes against humanity in the new world order. The pressure is on, particularly given the events in both former Yugoslavia and central Africa in recent months: Hutu refugees flooding back into Rwanda; Balkan butchers strutting about their fiefdoms; fighting engulfing eastern Zaire; Serbia on the brink of internal conflict. Although ultimately it is suspected war criminals who will stand trial, it is the United Nations and its capacity as a peacemaker and moral and legal arbiter which is very much in the dock.

Mark Rice-Oxley is a journalist based in Paris. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.