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Feature: Cassese Reflects on Hague's Troubled History

Ten years after it came into being, the tribunal's first president pays tribute to those who championed its cause.
By Chris Stephen

France and the United States get the credit for the creation, a decade ago, of The Hague tribunal, ICTY, according to the court's first president, Judge Antonio Cassese.

"The combination of French and American efforts led to the establishment of the ICTY," said Cassese, now an eminent university law professor in his home city of Florence, in an interview with IWPR.

Ten years ago this month, the UN's Commission of Experts, following a grim tour of Bosnian killing fields, was reporting back on evidence of war crimes, which would lead to the tribunal being formed in May 1993.

While the court is a UN institution, brought into being by the Security Council, Cassese says it was Paris and Washington that gave it the necessary impetus and support.

France's then-foreign minister Roland Dumas on January 16, 1993 appointed a commission to draft laws for a possible tribunal.

Two months before, outgoing Bush administration secretary of state Lawrence Eagleburger made a speech in which he named ten prominent suspects, among them Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic and General Ratko Mladic.

Washington's support continued with the in-coming Democrat administration, and across the Atlantic, Paris added its weight to demands for a court to be set up.

"The Americans to a large extent (are responsible), Eagleburger in particular," said Cassese. "But also the French pushed very much for the setting up of the international tribunal."

The idea for an international war crimes court had, in fact, been discussed before the Balkan wars, as a reaction to the horrors of the regime of Saddam Hussein in Iraq in 1990.

"You may remember the first person to float the idea of an international court was Mrs Thatcher (the former British premier)," he said. "Thatcher was the first one."

In February 1993, the Security Council agreed in principle to such a court and on May 25 a French-sponsored resolution, 827, established the ICTY.

Many observers at the time said the big powers wanted to use the court as a fig-leaf to cover their embarrassment at failing to stop the slaughter in Bosnia.

Cassese was elected as a judge later that year, and then the judges themselves made him president of the court.

He came to The Hague after a career as a professor of international and human rights law, including a spell as an Italian government delegate to the UN human rights commission.

In 1983, he took the leading role in drafting the Council of Europe convention for the prevention of torture, and subsequently was president of the council's torture convention committee, which visited Europe's prisons and police offices.

That experience made him the obvious choice to lead the UN's first experiment in international justice.

Today the ICTY employs more than 1,000 people and has a 100 million dollar budget. A sign of the progress it has made is that currently five former Balkan leaders are in detention or awaiting sentence. But a decade ago, says Cassese, even supporters had their doubts.

The budget when he arrived was tiny, and he was given temporary use of office space at the UN's other Hague court, the International Court of Justice, housed in the imposing Peace Palace. To save money he came to work by bicycle.

"Most people did not consider, except the Americans and the French, the tribunal a viable solution," he said. "Quite a few diplomats thought that of course this was an institution not destined to bear fruit."

In the beginning, even staff, he said, were downhearted, "Some of them said, well, we don't have any defendants, we don't have a court, we don't have a seat, we don't have a secretary, we don't have anything."

And things did not change quickly: it took three years before the court held its first trial, that of Dusko Tadic, on May 7, 1996 - with the Bosnian war over.

By then Cassese had been through what he says was his lowest moment - when news of the Srebrenica massacre came through.

The court had been established, in part, to deter any more war crimes in Bosnia. Yet here, two years after its inception, Serb troops were committing the worst crime of the whole war - the slaughter of more than 7,000 unarmed Muslims.

"It was a blow, a huge blow," he said. "I was so despondent and bitter."

The despondency did not last, however. Cassese and the court's second chief prosecutor Louise Arbour are credited with using diplomacy and persuasion to get the international community to start taking the court seriously from 1996 onwards.

Political pressure from the West since then has seen a steady stream of war crimes suspects surrendered, while in Bosnia NATO commandos have arrested a good number of fugitives.

Meanwhile, Cassese's reputation has soared. Hague officials remember him with genuine affection not just for his legal skills, but also for giving the court a personality and focus.

Looking back now, Cassese says his one regret was that he didn't try to persuade the Security Council - the court's ultimate boss - to employ some sort of official who would gather and filter evidence for both prosecution and defence, thus shortening the time some defendants spend in detention awaiting trial - and so cutting costs.

"We should have proposed to the Security Council to amend our statute if we had strong feelings, but at that stage none of us had sufficient experience," he said.

The greatest achievement of the court, he says now, was simply to make it work, and show the world that a war crimes process could succeed. "The system has become important," he said.

Chris Stephen is IWPR Bureau Chief in The Hague.

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