by Mile Branic
(IPS) THE HAGUE --
with Pres. Slobodan Milosevic and four other
high-ranking Yugoslav officials, NATO leaders and officers may also be
accountable for war crimes before the United Nations Tribunal for the former
Yugoslavia, legal experts noted.
Milosevic, Serbian President Milan Milutinovic and other three top civilian and military officials have been indicted for war crimes, committed in the ethnic cleansing campaign allegedly conducted by Serbian forces in Kosovo since the beginning of 1999.
The legal action is unprecedented for a head of state and became public the same day that Russia's former prime minister and special negotiator for the conflict, Victor Chernomyrdin, was due in Belgrade to meet Milosevic.
As expected, Milosevic's indictment was announced at a press conference by the Tribunal's Chief Prosecutor, Canadian judge Louise Arbour, who had already clashed with Belgrade in January over her failed attempt to investigate the massacre of 45 ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.
The indictment was signed on May 22, but kept secret in order to protect a UN humanitarian fact-finding mission in Yugoslavia, Arbour said.
Prior to Milosevic's indictment, however, and with much less media attention, the NATO countries' 19 heads of state, as well as foreign and defense ministers, had been formally accused of war crimes by a group of 17 lawyers from Canada, the United States and other countries.
a 25-page legal "notice" sent to the Prosecutor's Office at the Tribunal
earlier this month, the lawyers maintain that there is a legal basis and
sufficient undisputed evidence for NATO leaders to be prosecuted for
violating international humanitarian law in the conflict.
The crimes allegedly committed by NATO leaders are similar to those listed in Milosevic's indictment.
The list includes "killings, wilfully causing of great sufferings or serious injury to body or health, extensive destruction of property not justified by military necessity and carried out unlawfully and wantonly, employment of poisonous weapons or other weapons to cause unnecessary sufferings and wanton destruction of cities and villages. "
In an editorial published May 27 by The Washington Post, Chernomyrdin warns that NATO's armed force has moved to massive destruction of civilian infrastructure -- in particular, electric transmission lines, water pipes and factories," which is tantamount to collective punishment.
"Sooner or later NATO will be expected by the world community to pay Yugoslavia for damages, to compensate the bereaved families of innocent victims and to punish pilots who bombed civilians and their commanders who issued criminal orders," Chernomyrdin said.
A similar view was expressed recently by U.S. law professor Jonathan Miller, an expert in human rights law, who wrote in The Los Angeles Times that "the need to maintain impartiality will inevitably also require (Justice Arbour) to caution NATO officials on their bombing targets, if she has not done so already."
Apparently she has not done so, as she declared recently that the Tribunal has "accepted the assurances given by NATO that they intend to conduct their operations in Yugoslavia in full compliance with international humanitarian law."
But "recent decisions to deprive most of Serbia temporarily of electric power and to bomb a cigarette plant, a television station and a political party are hard to ascribe to military necessity," Miller said.
In the past week, NATO targets extended to villages and a jail allegedly used as command posts by the Serbian military, as well as power stations which supply electricity to Serbian cities.
Hospitals, bakeries, public transportation and water pumps have been paralyzed due to the attacks, IPS reported from Belgrade.
A prominent Greek lawyer, Alexander Lykourezos, presented earlier this month in the Hague a 38-page "indictment" against NATO, which details civilian casualties and damage of civilian property as a result of the bombing.
"There can be no doubt," Lykourezos concluded "that the criminal conduct of NATO's political and military leaders was wilful and wanton. The degree and level of criminal responsibility of each respective individual who contributed to the decision making is an issue for the Tribunal to determine."
Unlike Yugoslavia, which has never recognized the Tribunal's jurisdiction -- and denied Arbour a visa in January arguing that there was no war in Kosovo -- the NATO countries have accepted its authority.
For this, they were publicly praised by the Canadian judge at the recent Hague Appeal for Peace world conference.
"They (NATO) have voluntarily submitted themselves to the jurisdiction of a preexisting International Tribunal, whose mandate applies to the theatre of their chosen military operations, whose competence unrelated to the nationality, whose investigations are triggered at the sole discretion of the Prosecutor and who has primacy over national courts," Arbour said.
"By engaging in military operations in Kosovo under the jurisdiction of a Tribunal, NATO leaders have affirmed their confidence in an international forum that, even in its short history, has demonstrated its competence, its integrity, and its transparency," she added.
One problem, Italian law professor Giorgio Tosi said, is that the military operation itself is illegal.
By not seeking prior backing from the United Nations Security Council, NATO not only breached the U.N. Charter, but also its own, whose article 5 admits collective only in self-defense, and Article 7, which recognizes the Security Council's responsibility for international security, Tosi stressed.
Another legal precedent is Yugoslavia's accusation introduced before the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against NATO countries for war crimes and genocide, in which demands reparations for the damage inflicted to the country since the bombardments began on Mar. 24.
NATO countries' lawyers denied the accusations and also contested Yugoslavia's right to appeal to the Court, as it does not have full membership with the United Nations. The Court has not yet adopted a resolution on the case, which is expected sometime this week.
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