For War-Crimes Tribunals, 'Justice' Is a Relative Term ; Afghans Look at Yugoslav, Cambodia War Crimes Trials as Models for Their Country

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Each member of the Salwari family has a slightly different way of recalling the day they took Said Talib Shah away. With varied vantage points like characters in the Japanese film "Rashamon," three men retell the dread of watching the Taliban stop their younger brother on the street and force him into the back of a pick- up truck along with hundreds of other young men.

A fourth, their father, remembers pleading for his son's release, telling the Taliban soldiers that he was just an engineering student at Kabul University, not a soldier. "I ran out to catch him, but the Taliban said, 'It's not important whether he's studying or not.' It was just like a vulture that snatches the smaller birds," says Said Gauhershah Salwari, a man with finely etched eyes.

Memory is in the mind of the beholder - a characteristic that is evident this week as the eyes of the world focus on the trial of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. The man who is accused of ordering the slaying, starvation, and expulsion of thousands in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo throughout the 1990s, but insists he was only trying to preserve his country's unity and defend it from terrorism.

Justice, however, is supposed to be far less subjective. But in an era in which nations emerging from the horrors of war are increasingly turning to tribunals - whether in search of public catharsis or international legitimacy - the terms of justice are becoming as difficult to weed through as the scene of a crime in the eyes of four loved ones.

UN pulls out of Cambodia

Virtually on the eve of the Milosevic trial in The Hague, the United Nations announced it could no longer be a party to the creation of a war crimes tribunal in Cambodia. After spending nearly five years in negotiation with Cambodian officials over a court that would try the surviving senior leaders of the Khmer Rouge, a genocidal communist regime responsible for the death of more than 1.5 million of its own people between 1975 and 1979, the UN concluded that officials in Phnom Penh did not and would not meet the basic standards for a fair trial.

One key matter of dispute involved the Cambodian government's attempts to preserve amnesty deals it worked out for key Khmer Rouge leaders.

"It's disheartening, because this is the last chance to bring some accounting for what happened in Cambodia, and this doesn't bode well for that," says Brian Tittemore, one of the authors of a study on the process. But Mr. Tittemore, a lawyer with the Organization of American States' Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, says that the UN negotiators could not conscience being party to a trial that put political convenience before jurisprudence.

"Particularly when you're talking about crimes against humanity, such as genocide, there's a doctrine that these sorts of crimes are so serious ... that you can't submit them to amnesty," says Tittemore.

Who shall be pardoned, and who shall be prosecuted? These are some of the most difficult questions Afghanistan will face if it, as its new leadership promises, also pursues a war crimes tribunal. Afghanistan's interim foreign minister says that such a tribunal will only pursue the perpetrators of crimes committed under the Taliban's five-year rule.

The Taliban, however, was far from the only author of mass killing and ethnic cleansing over some 22 years of war in Afghanistan. Warlords and militias only loosely tied to the Northern Alliance - whose political leaders now comprise a weak central government in Kabul - are widely reported to have committed crimes equally as chilling as the Taliban's. Indeed, its ethnic Pashtun base also has been the target of bloodletting, and the Hazara minority to which the Salwaris belong have been brutal as often as brutalized.

To the Salwaris, however, a family of mild-mannered pharmacists, the Taliban years were a time of great persecution. …