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US Calls For End of UN Tribunals

Even as former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic stands trial in the Hague, the United States is calling for an eventual end to the process of war crimes tribunals that it helped create. The Bush administration's top official on war crimes testified on the matter before Congress Thursday.

Pierre-Richard Prosper, ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues at the State Department, wants to see the U.N. tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda end by 2008 at the latest.

In an appearance before the House International Relations Committee, Ambassador Prosper was highly critical of the tribunals. "In both tribunals, the professionalism of some of the personnel has been called into question with allegations of mismanagement and abuse," he said. "And in both tribunals, the process at times has been costly, has lacked efficiency, has been too slow, and has been too removed from the everyday experience of the people and the victims."

Ambassador Prosper says the United States will continue to press for the handover of former Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic to the tribunal. The two men have been indicted for the killings of Bosnian Muslims in the mid-1990s.

But Ambassador Prosper said eventually the United States want to see future war crimes prosecutions handled by each country's own domestic justice system. "Our goal should be and this administration's policy is to encourage states to pursue credible justice rather than abdicating the responsibility, he added. "Because justice and the administration of justice are a cornerstone of any democracy, pursuing accountability for war crimes while respecting the rule of law by a sovereign state must be encouraged at all times."

Lawmakers are divided on the issue.

Congressman Tom Lantos of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee and himself a survivor of the Holocaust, said there is a need for international tribunals. He asked: "What do you do when horrendous crimes are committed, and the national justice system is non-existent, incapable, intimidated, terrified, incompetent, you name it? What do you do then?"

But Republican Henry Hyde of Illinois, chairman of the committee, is not so sure. "There is another aspect of that same problem that says, 'due process of law,' he said. "You are innocent until proven guilty, you have a right to confront your witnesses, you have a right to subpoena people. Or do we just sweep that aside because we lack the institutions to do it, and we say, you are going to go on trial before this establishment, which may or may not know a thing about constitutional rights, as we understand them in America."

Judge Patricia Wald, who served on the Yugoslav tribunal from 1999 to 2001, defended the system as fair. "All the rules basically of the European Convention on Human Rights, as far as the rights of the accused, not a jury trial, but all kinds of rights to present the defense, to be informed of the charges against you, rights to counsel, guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, rights to appeal, and so on, are there," she said.

The Bush administration's stand on the tribunals is at odds with European allies, which back the creation of a permanent International Criminal Court, or ICC.

The ICC Treaty was signed by President Clinton in the last weeks of his term, but never sent to the Senate for approval.

The treaty has been ratified by 52 countries. It needs the support of eight more to go into effect. Supporters believe the permanent court will begin operating in the Hague later this year.