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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 August, 2004, 16:06 GMT 17:06 UK
Analysis: International tribunals on trial

By William Horsley
BBC European affairs correspondent

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in court at The Hague
Milosevic insists on defending himself
The trial of Slobodan Milosevic is the most important test yet of the work of the International War Crimes Tribunal in The Hague.

The implications are great for the system of United Nations-sponsored courts, since Mr Milosevic is seeking to turn the tables on his accusers and deny the legitimacy of the tribunal itself.

The Hague tribunal has struggled to live up to its goals because of long delays and the failure to arrest other high-profile suspects such as the former Bosnian Serb leader Radavan Karadzic.

But the tribunal has passed judgement in more than 50 cases.

The Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia represents an important example for the two other main international war crimes courts.

One is the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which was set up by the UN and is located in Arusha, Tanzania.

It has faced many obstructions and has completed only nine trials, leaving still a huge task to prosecute those most responsible for the mass killings and atrocities in Rwanda 10 years ago.

Charles Taylor
Former Liberian president Charles Taylor stepped down in August 2003
The Sierra Leone court, set up two years ago with UN backing, has so far indicted just 13 people, and the most wanted indictee, the former Liberian president Charles Taylor, has escaped trial by finding refuge in Nigeria.

It is vital for the credibility of the embryonic system of international justice for war crimes that these special tribunals are seen to be both effective and fair.

Ironically, the prospects for the newly-born International Criminal Court, whose task is to prosecute war crimes committed after its establishment in 2002, is uncertain because the world's most powerful country, the United States, is unwilling to cooperate with it.

The Milosevic trial and the record of the other tribunals will matter all the more in the eyes of international public opinion, as in due course the trial is expected to take place in Iraq, with support from international lawyers, of the former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

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