United Nations War Crimes Prosecutor Reviewing NATO Bombing of Yugoslavia

Double Standard evident as NATO and Serbian Allegations Treated Differently

By John LaForge

The chief war crimes prosecutor for the United Nations in The Hague is studying allegations that NATO pilots may have committed crimes of war during the U.S./NATO bombardment of Yugoslavia last year.

Beginning in August last year, Tribunal officials have reviewed evidence for an internal analysis, and the report was issued in late December. Of special concern is NATO's bombing of hospitals, a passenger train, state television studios, the Chinese embassy, refugee columns, a prison, the electric power grid, civilian buses, residential neighborhoods and, in particular, the widespread use of cluster bombs, some of which hit a hospital in the center of Nis in Serbia.

Former President Jimmy Carter wrote May 27 in the New York Times, "The United States' insistence on the use of cluster bombs, designed to kill or maim humans, is condemned almost universally and brings discredit on our nation."

The prestigious non-governmental organization Human Rights Watch issued a report Feb. 7, charging that NATO officials violated the Geneva Conventions, both in the selection of targets and the use of cluster bombs in urban areas. The 78-day bombardment caused the deaths of 500 civilians in 90 separate attacks, the group said.

But the mere suggestion that U.S. and NATO commanders and pilots may have committed acts that constitute war crimes has brought enormous pressure to bear against the chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte. As a result, an international double standard has been revealed.

Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic and others were indicted May 27 - well before the bombing was halted - with evidence that has not been made public. Then prosecutor Louise Arbour said she would only reveal the evidence after the accused were under arrest in The Hague. Indeed, court officials said some charges were based on reports from NATO governments.

While these indictments were reported with utmost seriousness, formal news accounts of the prosecutor's consideration of evidence against NATO treat the possibility of NATO crimes with veiled ridicule.

As the New York Times reported Dec. 29, bringing charges against NATO personnel would be an unprecedented move, "and a highly debatable one." "Even if evidence of NATO war crimes is found," the Times said, "it is questionable whether Ms. Del Ponte would go so far as to issue any indictments." (Emphasis added)

The next day, a spokesperson for the chief prosecutor's office has said that its study of possible NATO crimes "is highly unlikely to produce indictments or even be published."

Set up in 1993, the Tribunal has never charged a western leader, a fact that has lead to criticism that it's become a tool of NATO and the U.S.

The tribunal can only charge individuals with crimes, not governments, institutions or organizations.