NYT - UN tribunal investigating Nato's war in YU

December 29, 1999

THE HAGUE, Dec. 28 -- The chief war crimes prosecutor for the United Nations is reviewing the conduct of NATO pilots and their commanders during last spring's 78-day bombing campaign against Yugoslavia, her spokesman said today.

The staff of the prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, compiled a report on the air strikes at the urging of several "interested parties," including a group of Russian lawmakers and a Canadian law professor, said the spokesman, Paul Risley.

The war crimes tribunal, set up in 1993 by the Security Council, cannot indict governments or international organizations.

But if Ms. Del Ponte presses charges against any individual, it would be a landmark in global justice -- and a highly debatable one. No Western civilian or military leader has ever been brought before an international tribunal.

NATO began the bombing campaign in March to force President Slobodan Milosevic to halt his crackdown against Albanians in Kosovo.

The contents of the tribunal's report are confidential. However, NATO has been criticized for civilian deaths in what it has described as accidents, including the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade and an attack on a bridge as a passenger train was crossing it.

NATO's spokesman, Jamie Shea, refused to comment on the inquiry.

Investigating NATO's conduct would go far in dispelling the belief -- prevalent in the Balkans -- that the tribunal is a tool used by Western leaders to escape accountability.

But even if evidence of violations of international conventions on warfare were found, it is questionable whether Ms. Del Ponte, a former Swiss federal prosecutor, would go so far as to issue any indictments.

The handling of the report is a delicate matter for the tribunal, which depends on the military alliance to arrest and hand over suspects. NATO peacekeepers in the Balkans have detained about half of the 34 suspects now in custody.

Ms. Del Ponte alluded to this when a reporter for The Observer in London asked whether she would be prepared to press charges if the inquiry turned up incriminating evidence.

"If I am not willing to do that, I am not in the right place: I must give up the mission," she said in the interview, published last weekend.

But she stressed that other investigations would take precedence, saying: "It's not my priority, because I have inquiries about genocide, about bodies in mass graves."


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