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Wednesday, 4 July, 2001, 12:01 GMT 13:01 UK
War crimes QC Geoffrey Nice quizzed
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Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic has made his first appearance before the United Nations war crimes tribunal.

In an appearance that lasted less than 15 minutes, Mr Milosevic denounced the proceedings, which were promptly adjourned.

He faces charges in the Hague of planning and ordering a campaign of terror, persecution and violence against the Kosovo Albanians at the end of the 1990s.

Geoffrey Nice QC, former senior trial attorney at the Yugoslavian War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague, joined us for a live forum and answered a selection of your questions.


Highlights of interview


Newshost:

Gligo Tomanovic, Herceg-Novi, Yugoslavia asks: Can it be that Mr Milosevic is the only person in the world who allegedly "planned and ordered a campaign of terror, persecution and violence" against people of different nations? Do you, I mean the Tribunal in the Hague, have any plans to take to court others who have been involved in the violation of human rights in Northern Ireland, Chile, Vietnam, China, Israel, Sierra Leone, etc.?


Geoffrey Nice:

I think I have covered most of that and of course most people would agree with Gliglo Tomanovic, that there are plenty of other similar crimes that look for remedy. In relation to the specific points made in his question, Rwanda is being dealt with and there are the prospects of a tribunal being established for Sierra Leone - I think that is still lying with the United Nations to be dealt with.


Newshost:

Countries like China, Israel, Chile?


Geoffrey Nice:

I should of course have explained, the Tribunal in the Hague, which was established under what is called Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter, has an entirely defined and restricted remit and it relates only to the former Yugoslavia and therefore it has no jurisdiction or potential jurisdiction to go and look at these other spots which will all have to be dealt with separately.


Newshost:

Are you confident that one day there really will be an international court that can absolutely judge any country? Is that going to be impossible?


Geoffrey Nice:

I don't think I am in a position to be that confident and I am sure few people would be. I think within your lifetime, you will see an international court with very wide jurisdiction and probably involving the majority of countries in the world, but that is crystal ball gazing and to some degree it is hope. But then one has to have hope and be positive that these developments can happen because if you don't have hope and if you are not positive nobody will ever do anything.


Newshost:

It is very important that America of course is involved in this as you were saying earlier.


Geoffrey Nice:

Many people think it would be very desirable for America to be more actively involved in the international criminal court. It has of course been a supporter of the ad-hoc tribunals in the Hague and in Africa.


Newshost:

Shaibal Roy, St Louis asks: Is there any possibility to bring any of the Nato leaders to the tribunal for their crime against the Yugoslav people?


Geoffrey Nice:

The possibility exists if crimes were committed that fell within the remit of the tribunal. We know already that complaint has been made and has been considered and indeed has been rejected by the present prosecutor - but in theory, yes.


Newshost:

Dennis Johnson, Montreal asks: How can you charge one person for crimes that have been committed by entire peoples against each other for generations?


Geoffrey Nice:

Well I am not really in a position to give the answer of a historian about the criminality of what I imagine he is referring to here which is the unhappiness in the Balkans. But if underlying his question is the proposition that because things have always been in a particular way you should never do anything to stop it, then I think many would be against that approach. You have got to start somewhere. Even if people have been - and I make no comment on this - doing terrible things to each other for centuries, that doesn't mean there doesn't come a time where you have got to start the process of blowing the whistle and saying no - enough is enough, these crimes are so serious, we have the jurisdiction and something will be done.


Newshost:

Jake, UK asks: In a football match between England and France, we would not expect a French referee. Why then, is Milosevic being tried by a British judge, when Britain and Serbia were on opposite sides in the war?


Geoffrey Nice:

What he says about Britain and Serbia relates only to part of this conflict and for the balance of the conflict of course Britain was in the peacekeeping role, along with many other nations in Bosnia. In any event, his proposition might not be accepted by many. But let's put all that on one side. When judges become judges of the International Tribunal and indeed when advocates become advocates of the International Tribunal, they should, if they are honourable to their function, they should - and I think do - give up their national identity and simply become judges of the international court. It so happens that this case has been allocated, for the time being - it may be for the duration of the trial - to the court that is presided over by an English judge. He happens to be an extremely experienced trial judge and widely respected for that. But he is not sitting as an English judge - he is sitting as a judge of the International Tribunal and I am sure that he will approach that task on that basis.


Newshost:

Is every effort made to have judges of different nationalities sitting at these courts or is that not brought into consideration at all?


Geoffrey Nice:

Geographical spread - as I think the terminology is - is a feature of either all or most United Nations employments and there may be no more than one judge from any particular nation in the tribunal. So there is, in fact as it happens, one English judge - there certainly couldn't be more than one.


Newshost:

Patrick O'Rourke, Ireland asks: Considering the fact that Milosevic is right when he made his case that the tribunal is not a legal body recognised by the UN General Assembly, what credibility will it have in world terms?


Geoffrey Nice:

The Tribunal has been set up, as I said earlier, under Chapter 7 of the United Nations Charter. Its legality has been considered extensively by the Tribunal itself, both at a trial court level and also at the appeals level. The legality of the Tribunal has been established and although it may be open to any defendant - Milosevic or anyone else - to have the tribunal or the appeals chamber reconsider that issue, I fear that Patrick O'Rourke is wrong in his simple proposition that it is not a legal body. It is a legal body and it is performing a legal task.


Newshost:

We saw Milosevic yesterday rejecting the Tribunal. What are his options - he is saying he doesn't want an attorney?


Geoffrey Nice:

Well first of all I am not going to say anything about the Milosevic case itself. But generally if somebody chooses not to respect a court in which he or she finds himself or herself, the court has to get on and form its function notwithstanding this additional difficulty. It's a not uncommon problem because for various reasons defendants turn up in domestic courts and decide they don't want to answer to the judge or they want to turn round and look the other way etc. In those circumstances a judge has to - and I am sure that all judges of the International Tribunal would do this as a matter of instinct - they have the guard the defendant's rights because the defendant isn't guarding them for himself. They have to satisfy that everything that has to be done favourable to the defendant is done but thereafter they have to weigh the material that is presented before them to decide if the case is proved or not.


Newshost:

So in effect, somebody in that position is forced to have legal representation of some variety?


Geoffrey Nice:

No, he is under no obligation to do that - he might be well advised, he might not be - that is a matter for him or for any defendant in such a case. No, once he decides not to have the advantage of representation, it simply means that the court has to have that in mind and I suppose be extra specially careful in ensuring that he doesn't suffer any disadvantage as a result of that decision. But from what I saw of Judge May's dealings with yesterday's case, his concern was to ensure that the man didn't give up the assistance and advantage that would come to him from legal representation.


Newshost:

P.Rajesh Kumar, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia asks: Many people, not least top European politicians, are already convinced of Milosevic's heinous role in the Balkan wars. Against this backdrop, can he expect to get a fair hearing?


Geoffrey Nice:

Absolutely. Sometimes people overlook the fact that trained judges, but also jurors who come off the streets to try cases, are always aware of the responsibility of deciding a case according to the evidence and not according to extraneous material. Very rapidly both judges and indeed lay jurors adapt to the task of excluding everything they have heard outside the confines of the court and focusing on the material that comes to them as evidence. They look at the evidence, they weigh it, they decide if it is enough to prove one or more of the crimes alleged.

It is particularly important to have in mind that in these international tribunals, the decisions that are given are not just a yes or a no decision of the jury which you can't investigate, they are decisions in reasoned judgements where the judges identify the material they have considered, explain why they accept this material or reject that and that document is a document for posterity to consider and of course first it is a document for an appeals chamber to consider if one side or the other takes the case to appeal.


Newshost:

But I think it can become confusing when trials collapse because, if say, a newspaper article or something like that, with a piece of information in it that a judge doesn't want a jury or the people involved in the case to see and then all of a sudden you see that Milosevic has been all over our televisions and newspaper front pages and for months and years we have been saying he has committed these atrocities. Really can he get a fair trail?


Geoffrey Nice:

That is a very good point. You are probably thinking of a recent British case - the reason in such jurisdictions where something is revealed that the jury shouldn't know, leads to the collapse of the case, is because in a jury trial you don't have a reasoned judgement and therefore you wouldn't be in a position to be satisfied at the end of the trial - if they happen to convict - that they hadn't taken account of this external material that they shouldn't have known about. Where you have judgements of the type I refer to and where you have the additional advantages of judges who are trained more than lay jurors would be to exclude from consideration material that isn't evidence in the case and to be much more confident that it won't have an effect and speaking as a lawyer who has been doing the business of law for many years and seen many judges, it is possible and judges do honour their commitment to act within the confines of the evidence.


Newshost:

Robin Hilder, Sheffield, England asks: If Mr. Milosevic decides to call Nato leaders as part of his defence, does the tribunal have powers to require their attendance?


Geoffrey Nice:

I think the answer must be yes, they possibly could.

See also:

23 Feb 01 | Europe
Analysis: Croatia and war crimes
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