(CNSNews.com) - Officials at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) have been caught off guard by the recent surge in cases brought before the tribunal and are moving quickly to ensure swift and fair trials, said a UN spokesperson - though he acknowledged that some delays have occurred.
Recently, the ICTY has come under fire as critics charge that personnel changes, lack of funds, and bureaucratic red tape are holding up indictments for war crimes in the troubled Balkan region.
Paul Risley, spokesperson for the ICTY Prosecutor's Office in The Hague, Netherlands, told CNSNews.com that the recent influx of 31 cases before the tribunal, following the U.S. air war in Kosovo, has caught the tribunal by surprise.
"In the past five years, for the most part, there has not been nearly as many cases before the judges, and as a result they adopted a fairly relaxed pace towards their cases, and were fairly lenient in allowing both sides to delay matters and take extra time to prepare," Risley said.
"In the last six months, there has much greater pressure brought to bear on the judges to bring about trials in a much quicker pace."
Risley also said that the length of the trials - in some cases, over two years - indicates that "clearly, there's a process there that could be tightened up," but reiterated the tribunal's confidence that it has the resources and the will to sort through evidence of war crimes expeditiously.
"There are fourteen judges sitting in three separate tribunals, and right now we're pretty much at maximum speed," Risley told CNSNews.com. "There will always be complaints that these sort of cases take a lot of time."
The ICTY has also been hit by the departure of three senior officials in the past several months, including chief prosecutor Louise Arbour, who will leave next week to take a seat on the Canadian Supreme Court. Presiding Judge Gabrielle Kirk McDonald will also leave in November, 1999, and will be replaced by U.S. District Court Judge Patricia M. Wald.
Presently, there are 30 prisoners awaiting trial before the tribunal (one prisoner committed suicide after being arrested). In the past five years, only six people have entered guilty pleas or been found guilty of war crimes after a trial - and a recent article in the Chicago Tribune quotes critics who say the guilty please and convictions have come in the cases of low-level officials with limited responsibility for carrying out alleged genocide.
And while the court recently issued indictments for Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic and his top aides, it has little choice but to wait until Milosevic turns himself in or is arrested - both unlikely possibilities, according to many observers.
However, some observers claim that even the indictment of Milosevic is a success for the court, regardless of whether he ever stands trial.
"The indictment has isolated Milosevic from the international community. That's a victory for the concept of international justice, which is just now beginning to take shape," said I.V. Ashton of the Chicago Kent School of Law in an interview with CNSNews.com.
"With the indictment of Milosevic, the tribunal proved that it could be independent of political pressure," added Ashton.