REGIONAL REPORT: Bosnia Tribunal Initiative

Carla Del Ponte wants courts in Bosnia to take on more war crimes cases

REGIONAL REPORT: Bosnia Tribunal Initiative

Carla Del Ponte wants courts in Bosnia to take on more war crimes cases

Saturday, 20 October, 2001

The Hague tribunal has begun to look into ways courts in Bosnia-Herzegovina could help it indict and bring to justice a part of up to twenty five thousand war crimes suspects still at large in former Yugoslavia.

A new initiative aimed at achieving this goal, referred to in Bosnia as 'Little Hague', was launched by the tribunal's chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte during her latest visit to Sarajevo. The broad aim is, as far as Bosnia is concerned, for The Hague to concentrate on the main players in the conflict while local courts in Bosnia deal with lesser figures.

Unofficial estimates say the tribunal will be wound down by 2008 with The Hague prosecutor's office aiming to finish its investigations within three years. The court has so far issued 110 indictments and is said to be planning approximately 100 more.

It has been estimated that there are between 15 000 - 25 000 suspects still at large in former Yugoslavia. The hope is that those who committed crimes in Bosnia will be dealt with in local courts, which would continue to try war crimes suspects long after the tribunal ceases its work.

According to Florence Hartmann, the prosecutor's office spokeswoman, "The idea is to create competent and high quality courts that will be able to share our burden now, and continue the job after we cease to exist...We focus on courts in Bosnia and Hercegovina because not only were most crimes committed there but Bosnia is also under the authority of the international community."

Hartmann says the Little Hague initiative is still at the discussion stage with no confirmation of when the proposed courts would start work.

Del Ponte has already handed notes on the initiative to Zlatko Lagumdzija, Bosnia's state premier and foreign minister. There has so far been no official response.

A number of war crimes trials have already taken place in the Bosnian Federation. They've been carried out according to the principles of the 1996 Rome Convention: with all prosecutions approved by The Hague and monitored by international officials. However, many of these trials have run into problems and have had mixed results.

The current case of the "Zepce 15" - in which 15 Croats are indicted for crimes against local Bosniaks and Serbs in Zepce in 1993 - is a good example of the problems local trials face.

During the war, 150 Bosniaks were killed in the town. Around 9000 were exiled. The cantonal court in Zenica was given the go ahead by The Hague to hold a trial but so far none of the suspects have appeared before it.

Not only are the defendants refusing to turn up, their lawyer, Danilo Sijovic, has asked Bosnia's supreme court to bar a number of court officials from taking charge of the case because they were members of the Bosnian army during the Croat-Bosniak conflict.

Such disputes are typical. According to Hartmann, no matter how well cases are tried in Bosnia judges are invariably accused of ethnic bias.

To counter such problems, the 'Little Hague' initiative offers a number of different options, ranging from a multi-ethnic court, at a state rather than entity level in which international judges would participate, to an international court based in Bosnia, following procedures already adopted by the tribunal.

"Let's find a solution the people will prefer," Hartmann said.

The Office of the High Representative appears to welcome the Del Ponte proposal. "Local courts should play a bigger role in this," said chief of OHR press, Alexandra Stiglmayer. She added that the High Representative, Wolfgang Petritsch, would soon communicate his views on the matter to Del Ponte.

The 'Little Hague' initiative has also been well received by the Bosnian presidency - even the Serb member welcomed it - and judiciary. Presidency advisor, Kasim Trnka, said of the two Del Ponte options, he would prefer the multi-ethnic state-level court with international judges.

The only dissenting voices are coming from Republika Srpska, RS. Its reluctance to cooperate with The Hague has made it a haven for suspected war criminals. Most of the entity's main political parties are against the Del Ponte idea, seeing it as a move towards the centralisation of Bosnia, which they doggedly oppose.

It is unlikely though that their objections will obstruct the initiative, as RS representatives were unsuccessful when they tried to challenge the creation of the Bosnian state court in November 2000.

The bigger obstacles concern the poor condition of the state judicial system - which would have to be reformed in the event of the Del Ponte initiative becoming a reality - and the lack of financial resources.

It remains to be seen whether the UN would offer financial assistance, if it is required, although Jacques Klein, chief of the UN mission in Bosnia, has responded positively to the initiative.

Amra Kebo is an IWPR assistant editor in Bosnia, and a member of IWPR's war crimes reporting network. She is also editor with the Sarajevo daily, Oslobodjenje

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