Publication: Monitor Volume: 6 Issue: 121

The UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was back in the news yesterday, just one day after reports broke alleging that the United States and other countries–including Russia–were exploring a deal whereby Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic might be granted immunity from prosecution for war crimes if he agrees to give up his office (see the Monitor, June 19).

Yesterday’s developments came during a Security Council session devoted to proposed reforms for the Hague-based tribunal. However, Russian UN ambassador Sergei Lavrov, with some backing from China’s UN envoy, Shen Guofang, used the session to launch yet another harsh attack on the tribunal’s performance. Lavrov was repeating earlier Russian charges yesterday when he accused the court of having an anti-Serb bias and of being unduly influenced by political considerations. The Russian envoy also objected to the court’s use of sealed indictments–a practice adopted to help prevent the flight of accused war criminals–and criticized it for failing to prosecute NATO for harming civilians in Serbia during its air war over Kosovo last year. Several international human rights groups have faulted the Western alliance for the way in which it carried out its bombing campaign, but after an eleven-month assessment the tribunal announced earlier this month that it had decided not to open a formal investigation into the matter. The ruling was announced to the Security Council by Carla del Ponte, chief prosecutor for The Hague tribunal.

Del Ponte was also on hand yesterday, and reportedly blasted Belgrade and Moscow for what she said was their failure to cooperate in the investigation that she conducted prior to deciding not to prosecute NATO leaders for war crimes. The professionalism and objectivity of the tribunal, meanwhile, was also defended by tribunal president Claude Jorda. While admitting that most of those under indictment by the court are ethnic Serbs, he pointed out that the tribunal had no obligation to indict or try an equal number of Serbs, Croats and Muslims. Jorda said practices like that would serve to politicize the court. The United States and Canada also reportedly came to the tribunal’s defense. U.S. ambassador Richard Holbrooke was quoted as saying that the Russian criticism was neither “justified, valid or productive.” He also noted that Russia had itself participated in the 1995 Dayton peace process which helped to establish the Hague court (Reuters, AP, UPI, June 20).

Lavrov’s denunciation of The Hague tribunal yesterday reprised criticism which had been leveled against the court by Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov during a meeting with NATO ministers in Florence on May 24. Like Lavrov, Ivanov had accused the court of being politicized and also objected to its use of sealed indictments. In addition, he complained of what he said was a “predominance of Western representatives, and U.S. representatives” on the staff of the tribunal. Ivanov’s attack was seen by some at the time as part of an attempt by the Russian government to cover its own embarrassment over having hosted a visit to Moscow by Yugoslav Defense Minister Dragoljub Ojdanic–himself an indicted war criminal (Reuters, AFP, May 25). The Ojdanic visit earned Moscow considerable criticism from abroad, as well as demands for an explanation from The Hague tribunal.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, Moscow also lashed out at the tribunal following del Ponte’s decision not to pursue an investigation into alleged war crimes committed by NATO during the Kosovo campaign. At the time, the Russian Foreign Ministry said it was not surprised by the decision. “It’s not the first time,” a ministry statement read, “that the tribunal closes its eyes on cases of violations of the norms of international humanitarian rights by other participants in the conflict, thus demonstrating its political bias” (AP, June 3).

Russian attacks on The Hague tribunal–and on del Ponte personally–have reflected Moscow’s opposition to Western policy in the Balkans and are not unlike those that Moscow launched several years ago against the UN Special Commission for disarming Iraq (UNSCOM), and its head, the Australian diplomat Richard Butler. Those earlier attacks, which were a reflection of Moscow’s strong support for the regime of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad, were part of a complex process which ultimately led to Butler’s removal and UNSCOM’s disbandment. In much the same way, Moscow has more recently also criticized and attempted to discredit such other key UN officials as Bernard Kouchner, the French head of the UN Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo, and Mary Robinson, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and a strong critic of Russian military actions in Chechnya.

Moscow has repeatedly claimed that it supports the United Nations and wants to see its role raised as an arbiter of international conflicts. Yet all of the attacks outlined above have been aimed at discrediting–and at times vilifying–key UN institutions and, especially, the individuals running them. Not surprisingly, they have also been aimed at advancing particular Russian security or foreign policy interests. In recent weeks there have been suggestions that Moscow is distancing itself from Milosevic, and reports earlier this week even suggested that the Kremlin may be talking with the West about a way to remove Milosevic from power (see the Monitor, June 19). But even if this is true, yesterday’s UN session appears to make clear that any common ground developing between Russia and the West over Yugoslavia is not likely to extend to the workings of the international war crimes court or to its efforts to bring accused war criminals to justice.