10 November 1999


10 November 1999

Press Briefing



The new Chief Prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda told correspondents this afternoon that her task was daunting and required the continued support of the Security Council and the international community.

The Chief Prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, appeared at a Headquarters press briefing with Graham Blewitt, Deputy Prosecutor of the Yugoslavia Tribunal, who underlined the challenges facing the court. They were introduced by Fred Eckhard, Spokesman for the Secretary-General.

Mr. Blewitt said that through the creation of the two Tribunals, the international community had designed a powerful enforcement mechanism for international humanitarian law. Indeed, the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia had already reported to the Security Council the "total defiance" shown by the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in refusing to surrender those indicted and accused. As a result, Serbia was becoming a "safe haven" for those accused of serious war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Kosovo.

"This situation cannot be allowed to continue", he went on. Further, Croatia could not be allowed to withhold its cooperation on the basis of its unilateral decision that the Tribunal had no jurisdiction to investigate the operation of its armed forces in operations “Storm” and “Flash”.

He said it was essential for the success of the Tribunal that States not be permitted to dictate to its independent prosecutor what events should and should not be investigated. The subjects of international criminal law were individuals, not States or entire peoples. Decisions about individual investigations and prosecutions lay with the Tribunal's prosecutor.

The Chief Prosecutor had recently completed her first visit to the former Yugoslavia, visiting Skopje, Pristina, Sarajevo, Banja Luca and Zagreb, meeting with officials in all locations. She had also met with the commanders of the Kosovo Security Force (KFOR) and the NATO led stabilization force (SFOR), as well as with the Secretary-General's Special Representatives in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo. The Prosecutor had visited exhumation sites in Kosovo and a mortuary site in Bosnia and Herzegovina. There she had seen first-hand the human remains of the victims.

Continuing, he said the Prosecutor would also travel to Rwanda to visit her Office there. She would spend several weeks in Kigali and Arusha. She had already met the Chief Prosecutor and Military Prosecutor of Rwanda, as well as the Rwandan Ambassador in Brussels. That meeting was the first time that Rwandan officials had visited the Rwandan Tribunal in The Hague. Since then, however, the Tribunal's relations with the Rwandan Government might have been affected by the latter’s reaction to the Tribunal Appeals Chamber’s decision to release one of the Rwandan accused and dismiss the charges against him.

He said the Prosecutor was very concerned about the circumstances of that case and about the Court's findings of delays so great as to amount to a violation of the rights of the accused. She had very much regretted the criticism of the Office of the Prosecutor for not having acted diligently in that prosecution, but she would have to spend some time in Rwanda to better understand the situation. Meanwhile, she would reserve any further comments about the work of the Rwanda Tribunal.

Ms. Del Ponte spoke on the issue of arrests made in connection with the Yugoslavia Tribunal. She said that, in Bosnia and Herzegovina where international forces were present, 14 of the accused had been detained by SFOR since July 1997; four had been detained this year. She hoped the momentum would be sustained and the figures would continue to rise. That successful record was most encouraging; she would work hard to maintain that level of cooperation with SFOR and continue to press for increasingly strong action against all of the accused who had not yet been arrested, including those at the highest level.

She said there were accused individuals who were "beyond the reach" of SFOR; their arrest posed quite a different question. The Tribunal itself could do only so much. She required the support of national governments and international institutions. Moreover, she could not overemphasize the support that the Security Council could give the Tribunal.

Much of her work this year had concerned Kosovo, she said, explaining that her office had had to act quickly before evidence was lost. For the past five months, her office had been working with forensic personnel from 14 countries who had contributed forensic pathology and crime scene teams, the last of which had left Kosovo on 31 October. She now had a preliminary analysis of the first findings, although not all the forensic reports had been completed.

There had been a lot of speculation about the number of people killed in Kosovo, she went on. Some people had expected the Tribunal to provide the definitive answer, but her task was not to prepare a complete list of war casualties; it was rather to gather evidence relevant to criminal charges. Her initial focus, understandably, had been to investigate those places listed as crime scenes in the indictment against President Slobodan Milosevic and other leaders. Her work had expanded beyond that investigation, but it was not her mission to compile a complete census of deaths.

Nevertheless, she said, her staff had collected some relevant statistics, given that it might be some time before all of the evidence was presented before a court, and given the legitimate public interest in the nature of her findings in the meantime. She had received reports of 529 gravesites, including those where exposed bodies had been found. As of today, approximately one third of those gravesites had been examined, and work had been completed at 195 sites. In total, 4,266 bodies had reportedly been buried in those sites. To date, 2,108 bodies had been exhumed.

Continuing, she said that figure did not necessarily reflect the actual number of actual victims, because evidence of grave tampering had been discovered. There was also a significant number of sites where the precise number of bodies could not be counted. In those places, steps had been taken to hide the evidence. Many bodies had been burned, but the forensic evidence was nonetheless consistent with witness accounts of the crimes. The figures themselves might not tell the whole story. She would not expect the forensic evidence in isolation to produce a definitive total, although it could help to establish the total number of dead.

She said the overall pattern of killing was coming into focus: there was a large number of relatively small sites; she did not typically find hundreds of people. A few sites had contained the remains of some 100 people, but often the number was much smaller, and sometimes the reports of buried victims were not borne out at all. Many of the bodies, including those of women and children, were positively identified, and often the names of individual victims were well known. Again, confirming identification was not the primary objective of her office.

In summary, she said she had in her possession invaluable documentation of what had happened to many people in many places in Kosovo. There was no substitute for that kind of accurate information, as that evidence would eventually stand up in a court of law. She was preparing now for next year, when she hoped to complete the investigation of crime scenes and mass graves. She wished to complete the forensic investigation of all remaining sites as soon as possible. There was a continuing risk that some of them might be disturbed prior to that examination. Despite the completed exhumations, it was still not known how many bodies would be found. More than 2,000 had been found, out of a reported total of 11,334.

Given the same level of resources next year, she said it was possible to finish the entire forensic programme in a single season. Her goal was to complete the task; it could not be left half-finished. There was a lot of work remaining, but she would not allow the Kosovo investigations to detract from other prosecutions relating to Bosnia and Herzegovina and Croatia. The year 2000 would see a full range of activities from the Office of the Prosecutor.

Asked about possible Security Council intervention to secure the cooperation of the Croatian Government, she said the Government’s position was not very clear. It had indicated its willingness to find a solution; its objection had referred to a lack of jurisdiction. She had therefore asked the Council to intervene in order to force Croatia to cooperate with the Tribunal. The Council must decide the nature of any intervention. The President of the Tribunal was writing two letters to the Council on the matter. The Prosecutor underlined that such cooperation was necessary, especially in order to obtain documentation concerning operations “Storm” and “Flash”.

Given the reference to a total of 11,334 reported deaths in Kosovo and to some 4,000 reportedly found in the gravesites, a correspondent asked about the whereabouts of the other 7,000 bodies.

Ms. Del Ponte said it must first be determined whether there were 7,000 more bodies to discover. The information she had was from such sources as witnesses and non-governmental organizations. It must be made clear if that number were real or not. So far, she had exhumed some 2,000. It was winter, and the work would have to wait until spring.

When a correspondent suggested that the number of actual deaths might be roughly half of the reported 10,000 to 11,000 victims, Mr. Blewitt said it was difficult for the Prosecutor's Office to comment on numbers quoted by other sources. It had fairly strong reports of more than 4,000 missing victims, and the forensic investigations had been aimed at those identified sites that were associated with those victims. As the investigation continued next year, it might be possible to reconcile the numbers. The results of the forensic work would be announced and would provide some certainty about the actual number of victims.

Asked whether genocide charges could be filed if the death toll were lower, he said "it's really not a numbers game to determine whether or not genocide has been committed". It was purely a legal question as to whether or not the accused had the specific intent to commit the crime of genocide. Other evidence would be used to establish that fact. He was in fact investigating whether or not genocide had occurred, a definitive pronouncement on that would be the issuing of indictments.

Ms. Del Ponte added that genocide was the organized intention to destroy systematically an ethnic group or a group of people. What was important was not only how many had been killed, but how they had been killed.

To a series of follow-up questions concerning the findings, Mr. Blewitt said more than 500 sites had been associated with the 4,000 bodies. He had only completed examination of 195. Estimates of 11,000 bodies had been derived from news reports, including an estimate by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) of some 10,000 victims.

Ms. Del Ponte added that, by next year, all bodies would be exhumed from all sites, which would provide a better indication. She was working on the investigation, case by case. She could only disclose what she had found in the course of that investigation. She did not have enough information to provide a fuller answer.

Asked if all the victims found so far had been ethnic Albanians, the Chief Prosecutor said yes, most had been Kosovo Albanians, but she had indications that numbers of other ethnic groups would be found.

Mr. Blewitt said there were a number of small graves where Serb victims had been identified through the forensic work, but the victims had been predominantly Kosovo Albanians.

Were the suspected killers Serbs attempting ethnic cleansing? another correspondent asked. Ms. Del Ponte said most of the suspected perpetrators were Serbs but there were other suspects, including Muslims. There was also an open inquiry about KLA activity.

Another correspondent asked how many people who had been indicted but not yet arrested were believed to be in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Was it "normal" for the prosecutor to have to "press" the police, in this case SFOR, to make arrests? Was she satisfied that they were really doing all they should?

Ms. Del Ponte said it was true, a public prosecutor must not press the police to make the arrests; it was for her to provide the arrest warrant or order, and for the police to execute it. The SFOR, however, was military in character and not a police group. She was asking SFOR and KFOR to be "more proactive" in searching for the suspects. Many of the fugitives have been free for many years. The time had come to arrest them. Some of them were in Serbia, but normally they crossed borders. She had therefore requested that attention be paid to the borders.

She said she was very satisfied with SFOR's performance in the light of the arrests that had been made. The SFOR was really cooperating with her, and she was confident there would be more arrests.

Asked if she intended to look into the possibility that NATO had committed war crimes, she said she had received many reports about such NATO intervention, and was looking very carefully at them. She would take a decision about that and make it public, but that was not her priority. Asked why not, she said her priority was the open inquiry she had found upon taking office on 15 November.

Mr. Blewitt said that the selection of sites to be investigated had been based primarily on the existing indictment against President Milosevic, to another question. The seven particular villages or sites named in that indictment were his number one priority. He had selected other sites based on various criteria that he was not at liberty to disclose. They had not been based solely on the number of victims; several factors had been considered.

Asked if she had been satisfied with the support expressed by Member States in the Security Council, Ms. Del Ponte said she was very satisfied because she had received important support. She had asked the Council to make an intervention against the States which were not cooperating with her Office; she was awaiting a response.

The priority was the open inquiry she had found upon undertaking her function on 15 September, she replied to a question about why the alleged killing of civilians by NATO was not her priority. She had many ongoing inquiries, including some related to NATO activities.

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For information media. Not an official record.