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Friday, 29 June, 2001, 18:54 GMT 19:54 UK
Milosevic case boosts international court
International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague
The tribunal has never tried a former head of state
By diplomatic correspondent Barnaby Mason

The chief prosecutor of the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Carla del Ponte, has called Slobodan Milosevic's extradition a "turning point" in the fight to bring other fugitives to face trial.

Carla del Ponte
"The arrest of Slobodan Milosevic is a turning point"
Mr Milosevic will be the first former head of state to be tried before any international criminal court - with the possible technical exception of the man who took over from Adolf Hitler in the closing days of the World War II, Admiral Karl Doenitz.

It is a momentous move.

When the United Nations Security Council set up a war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in 1993, it was widely seen as a substitute for international action to stop the slaughter in Bosnia.

End to cynicism

After a slow start, the capture of war crimes suspects and a series of trials began to banish cynicism.

Nineteen people have so far received prison sentences.

But the tribunal cannot try cases arising from events outside the Balkans, and a similar restriction applies to the tribunal set up to deal with those responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

In both cases, monstrous events galvanised the big powers to act.

Guilt at their failure to prevent the atrocities played a part, but western governments were a lot more energetic and committed in Europe, where their strategic interests were at stake.

New international atmosphere

Nevertheless, the international atmosphere has changed. Other moves have established the principle that those who commit the worst violations of human rights cannot escape justice on the grounds that their alleged crimes were an internal matter.

The 1998 arrest in Britain of the former Chilean dictator, Augusto Pinochet, led to court decisions that were seen as a landmark in the development of a universal jurisdiction - even though he was eventually freed on grounds of ill health.

Augusto Pinochet
Pinochet's arrest in Britain in 1998 led to landmark decisions
But international legal action of this kind is cumbersome. It depends on extradition decisions by politicians as well as judges, and on whether particular states are party to treaties like the Convention on Torture.

The answer for many lies in the proposed international criminal court.

So far 35 states have ratified the document negotiated in Rome three years ago, while 60 are needed to bring the court into being.

The handover of Mr Milosevic to the tribunal in The Hague may speed up the process.

The new court will be able to try crimes against humanity (defined largely by the Geneva Conventions) committed anywhere in the world, though not those pre-dating its creation.

The biggest weakness is the refusal of the United States to sign up, despite safeguards to meet objections that American soldiers might be the victims of frivolous or mischievous prosecutions.

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