Subject: BBC: Experts meet on war crimes

Experts meet on war crimes

Matt Prodger

BBC Correspondent in Dubrovnik

Legal experts from around the world have gathered in the Croatian coastal city of Dubrovnik to compare notes on prosecuting war criminals.

Dubrovnik was almost destroyed during the Balkan wars and is a symbolic location

These are not easy times for war crimes prosecutors.

The Slobodan Milosevic trial has been anything but smooth. Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic continue to evade the prosecutors.

Likewise former Liberian President Charles Taylor and several senior Indonesian soldiers wanted for war crimes in East Timor.

The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda has completed only a handful of trials and in Sierra Leone little more than a dozen people have been indicted.

The keynote speaker at this United Nations conference, Geoffrey Robertson QC, is however upbeat.

''We have come a long way,'' he says.

"We have now established that nobody responsible for war crimes anywhere is beyond the reach of the law.''

Uncooperative countries

David Cohen from the War Crimes Studies Centre in Berkeley is more cautious.

''If you look at the conviction rate of the war crimes tribunals it has actually been pretty high," he says.

"The trouble is that in many cases, such as East Timor, the courts haven't been able to go up the chain of command and get senior leaders.

"If individual countries, like Indonesia, won't co-operate then there's not much the courts can do by themselves.''

Doubts over court

There is pessimism too over the future of the new International Criminal Court.

It is meant to have a global remit, but the United States is unwilling to co-operate with it.

''Undermined from the beginning,'' says David Cohen.

On the day this conference opened, the Hague appointed defence lawyers to Slobodan Milosevic against his will.

''The right decision,'' according to Belgrade delegate Dusan Ignjatovic.

''He should have had one from the beginning. If he were on trial in Serbia, the court would have forced one on him. I do not know if it will speed the trial up, but it may stop him making a fool of himself.''

Prosecutors hope the lengthy delays of the Milosevic case will not be repeated in the upcoming trial of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

At least he will be tried in his own country, a good thing think most legal experts, but there are doubts over the ability of an Iraqi court to handle a difficult and big case like this one.

Poignant venue

The location of this conference, Dubrovnik, is poignant.

This beautiful walled city on the Dalmatian Coast was almost destroyed by Yugoslav artillery in the early 1990s.

It has been rebuilt and there is little evidence of the destruction now.

But one legacy of the Balkan wars is apparent elsewhere: the Hague War Crimes Tribunal set up more than a decade ago and the predecessor to other tribunals around the world.

There should be no turning back, says Geoffrey Robertson, recalling that in 1939 Adolf Hitler, in reference to the Jews, reassured his commanders with the words "Who now remembers the extermination of the Armenians?".

He was referring to their slaughter and deportation from Anatolia in 1915-17.

"We are making sure that such an event if it should happen again would never be allowed to fade into obscurity,'' says Mr Robertson.

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