Former prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal Nancy
Patterson told about 60 GW Law School students Monday how to overcome the challenges of bringing war criminals to justice.
Patterson spoke about her involvement in prosecuting former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in Lerner Hall. Prosecuting international criminals could become an important issue if Osama bin Laden is captured.
Patterson supervised the investigation that led to the prosecution of Milosevic on charges of crimes against humanity, including mass murder and deportation.
Milosevic was confronted Monday before an international war crimes tribunal with two indictments of genocide in the Balkans, according to the New York Times. Milosevic has ignored the charges, refusing to recognize the tribunal as legal.
In July 1994, Patterson arrived at The Hague, Netherlands, and began to formulate a team to investigate war crimes in the Balkans.
Patterson said the team started out with very little, sharing an office building with an insurance company, one computer for every three attorneys, few desks and basic office supplies.
“The first question was, do we go after the big fish or the little fish? In order to get a big fish like Milosevic, it is imperative to get the people working under him, the ones actually carrying out his orders,” Patterson said. “This is necessary to establish a chain of command that can be turned into a chain of guilt.”
The investigators experienced several problems while beginning the investigation including a language barrier. They had no documents or witnesses and were denied access to crime scenes, she said.
“How to locate and interview witnesses was the toughest problem we faced in the beginning,” Patterson said. Few victims spoke English, and most interpreters were not helpful. Many witnesses lived in remote, rugged places that often had no water or electricity, making it impossible to record interviews by computer. She also said some victims were afraid to speak.
“Several women who were raped had not told anyone because they were afraid that it would get back to the group they were accusing,” she said.
The staff consisted of 30 attorneys from 20 different countries. This meant 20 different ways of practicing law and deciding how to conduct a trial, she said.
“In the long run, it was nice to be able to go through the various judicial systems represented by these attorneys and pick out certain ways of doing things that we thought we help the investigation run more efficiently,” Patterson said.
In 1999, Patterson and her team gained access to Kosovo and mass gravesites, which she described as “full of horror.” Eventually, the team learned how to collect evidence professionally.
“One time a group of us were in a town where all of the men had been murdered and buried,” Patterson said. “We were going through the investigation when all of a sudden we looked up and discovered we were surrounded by a pack of wild dogs who had been feeding on the corpses.”
Patterson said she realizes some of the shortcomings of the International Criminal Tribunal.
“The ultimate problem with (the tribunal) is its lack of enforcement power. The tribunal has no power to make a witness testify or a suspect appear in court,” Patterson said.
Patterson said the procedures are guided by individual governments and judicial systems of each country. The freedoms of the team were more limited in some systems than others, she said.