Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Comment: Investigating War Crimes

The West's new-found commitment to war crimes investigations risks being perceived as "victors' justice".
By IWPR

Hundreds of war crimes investigators will descend on Kosovo next week to collect evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Serbian and Yugoslav forces in recent months.


Forensics experts and criminal specialists from the American FBI, Britain's Scotland Yard and from the Canadian Mounted Police will examine atrocity sites, most of which have already been documented by international media and human rights organisations based on the statements of refugees.


Their findings will be forwarded to the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the international court established to prosecute war crimes committed on the territory of the former Yugoslavia since 1991 in The Hague.


For the first time in the Tribunal's short history, therefore, investigators will have direct and timely access to victims, witnesses and sites of serious war crimes.


The information gathered is likely to strengthen the Tribunal's case against Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, who was indicted, together with four members of his inner circle, by the Tribunal on May 27, as well as other leading military, paramilitary and political figures in Serbia.


Investigators will examine massacre sites so far uncovered in Kosovo such as Velika Krusa, Bela Crkva, and Izbica, where eyewitnesses say that Serbian forces executed hundreds of ethnic Albanian civilians.


They will also hopefully investigate the less violent but more systematic crimes, like the stripping of identity documents from ethnic Albanians as they were driven out of the country. The clear pattern of document confiscation reveals a political decision to expel the Albanian population--a violation of the Geneva Conventions.


While these crimes committed by Serbian forces now dominate the newspaper front pages and lead television news bulletins, they are hardly new.


Violations of the rules of war increased in both intensity and frequency in the wake of the NATO bombing, but indiscriminate attacks, summary executions, and the systematic destruction of civilian objects have been standard features of the Serbian governments anti-insurgency campaign since the outbreak of fighting in February 1998.


Of the 2,500 ethnic Albanians believed killed before the NATO bombing began, the majority were civilians. Thousands more had been forced from their village homes, or even displaced out of the country.


What is new is the Western government's enthusiasm for and commitment to international justice. While the Tribunal pleaded for more financial and political support--especially much-needed intelligence on Yugoslavia's chain of command--from the beginning of the conflict, it was only after NATO launched its bombing campaign that such assistance was forthcoming.


While human rights activists must welcome this support, the timing of the West's new-found commitment to war crimes investigations suggests a selective approach to international justice. It seems the West is only promoting justice when it suits its political needs.


After the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement that ended the fighting in Bosnia, most Western governments downplayed the importance of the Tribunal, and turned a blind eye to human rights abuses in Kosovo, because Milosevic was deemed essential as a guarantor of the fragile peace.


As a result, despite spending more than three-and-a-half years in Bosnia, NATO has failed to arrest the two most notorious Bosnian Serb war criminals Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic.


Had they been arrested and placed on trial, NATO would have sent out a clear signal that it was not prepared to tolerate similar violent and abusive behaviour in other parts of the Balkans. It may also have deterred Serbian forces from committing atrocities in Kosovo.


The use of investigators from countries who were parties to the conflict, such as the US and UK, risks undermining the Tribunals credibility as an objective judicial organ and even creating a sense of "victor's justice".


Lasting peace requires a more comprehensive approach to punishing war crimes which is, above all, seen to be just.


In order to demonstrate genuine objectivity, the Tribunal should investigate potential war crimes committed by all sides in the conflict. This includes investigating actions of the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA)--which may have executed as many as 140 ethnic Serbs before the NATO bombing began--and even NATO for its selection of targets in Yugoslavia and its use of indiscriminate weapons such as cluster bombs.


Fred Abrahams is a senior researcher covering Kosovo for Human Rights Watch.