U.S. withholds labeling Milosevic a war criminal

Officials reluctant to risk chance at further talks

April 06, 1999|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON -- The United States said yesterday that Slobodan Milosevic bore "political responsibility" for barbaric acts in Kosovo, but critics said officials were reluctant to label Yugoslavia's president a war criminal because they may again have to negotiate with him.

In a report to Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, an American special envoy said that interviews with refugees clearly showed that the Serbs were committing "ethnic cleansing," war crimes and crimes against humanity in the province.

"We certainly regard President Milosevic as having the political responsibility for the actions of his forces in Kosovo and we certainly regard those actions to be criminal in character," the envoy, David Scheffer told a briefing.

But he said it would be up to war crimes prosecutor Louise Arbour, at The Hague in the Netherlands, "to reach the actual legal judgment about the status of any particular individual."

Paul R. Williams, an international law professor at American University who has advised the Kosovo Albanians, said the Clinton administration was being "very passive" about pursuing allegations of war crimes against Milosevic.

"If the United States government were serious about indicting Milosevic they could put together a packet of compelling evidence in a matter of days," Williams said.

The administration has sharply stepped up its attacks on Milosevic since the collapse of peace negotiations last month and the renewal of a campaign of ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. Officials now suggest that he was ultimately responsible for aggression in Bosnia, starting in 1992, similar to what he is doing in Kosovo.

But Williams said that if the Clinton administration were truly serious about pursuing Milosevic, it would accuse him of "command responsibility," a legal term meaning that a leader exercises control over forces involved in war crimes.

"The reason they're fudging it is that they may have to negotiate with him in a week or 10 days," said Williams.

State Department spokesman James P. Rubin rejected the criticism, saying the Yugoslav leader's conduct is making it less and less likely he will be a negotiating partner in the future.

"We are not ruling out dealing with Milosevic, but it's harder and harder to imagine doing so given what's going on in Kosovo," Rubin said in an interview. At a briefing earlier, he said Milosevic was politically responsible for "horrendous and barbaric acts."

The question of whether the Yugoslav leader should be labeled a war criminal "is a decision for the tribunal to make," Rubin said. "It wouldn't help their case if countries were to prejudge the outcome of those investigations."

A NATO diplomat said that it might be legally impossible to negotiate with Milosevic if he were under indictment. Since the alliance has said it would cooperate with the war crimes tribunal, it would also be difficult to agree to any settlement that strengthened Milosevic's hold on power.

"It could be more convenient not to have him charged for a while," said Yale Law School professor Ruth Wedgwood.

The case against Milosevic, she said, is "a slam dunk." The forcible deportation of a population is a crime against humanity, she said. If a government leader knew about it or should have known and failed to act against it, he is responsible.

Scheffer, who is ambassador-at-large for war crimes issues, recently returned from the Balkans, where he interviewed a number of refugees.

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