IT in a War Crimes Tribunal

Finding evidence in the rubble, building cases amid chaos, the International Criminal Tribunal for the rormer Yugoslavia is leveraging IT to help hold the butchers of Bosnia and the criminals of Kosovo responsible for their sins.

The rutted streets shake the U.N.-escorted van that methodically travels up and down every lane, street and avenue in Pec, Kosovo, in the Republic of Yugoslavia. From the van, four pairs of unblinking electronic eyes take in the broken windows, the burned cars and the stucco walls dotted with bullet holes, and commit it all to memory. Digital memory. The City Server, a GPS satellite-tracking vehicle, has digital cameras mounted front, back, on both sides, and on each corner, eight in all. For six weeks in the fall of 1999 it cruised every street of Kosovo's war-torn villages and towns, taking a picture every 3 meters. The digital cameras streamed data into an onboard computer to produce a seamless, close-up mural of the war zone. Later, the images will be matched to existing GPS-coded maps and satellite imagery to confirm the exact location of the destruction—a pictorial butcher's bill for the civil war in Kosovo.

The vehicle, driven by an employee of the German company Tele Info Digital Publishing, was contracted by the IT department of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, Netherlands, to record visual evidence of possible war crime scenes before they could be covered up or destroyed.

This is just one of the IT tools employed by those trying to bring to justice the individuals responsible for war crimes committed during the grisly dissolution of Yugoslavia. In the ensuing chaos, the work of acquiring, analyzing and managing information was (and still is) formidably hard. But it had to be done.

Yugoslav dictator Marshall Tito's death in 1980 marked the beginning of the country's end. After Tito, the six federated socialist republics that composed Yugoslavia (Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Macedonia) participated in a joint, rotating presidency—the leader of each republic serving for one year. As the decade wore on and the influence of Soviet-style communism waned along with the power of the Soviet Union, nationalism reemerged in Yugoslavia's various ethnic pockets and politicians, like Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, used it as a vehicle in which to ride to power.

Background Briefing

Slovenia seceded from Yugoslavia in 1991 after a very brief battle; then Croatia attempted to secede and take with it the land in Bosnia inhabited by ethnic Croatians. That devolved into war between Serbia (claiming to be protecting the integrity of a united Yugoslavia) and Croatia. The battleground became the republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina, with both Serbia and Croatia trying to grab territory. In 1992 the outside world stepped in to try to stop the fighting. Several approaches were tried, and finally the American-brokered Dayton Peace Agreement was signed, under which an edgy peace held until the smoldering tension between the Serbs and Albanians living in Kosovo flared into ethnic cleansing.

And it's really much more confusing than that.

In 1993 the U.N. set up ICTY, instructing it to "prosecute persons responsible for serious violations of international humanitarian law committed on the territory of the former Yugoslavia since 1991."

And in February 1997, Kate Greenwood, whose education is in both law and IT, came to ICTY from the office of the attorney general of Australia. Now ICTY's chief of information and evidence, she says, "My international law lecturer in school said, 'International law isn't really law; no one ever goes out and arrests anyone under international law.' But my first year here, they did just that," taking into custody nine indicted war criminals and bringing them to trial.

The U.N. provided some procedural guidance in a formal document outlining the duties of the Tribunal, but, for example, the section on the process of investigating a crime and obtaining an indictment takes up less than half a typed page. Christian Chartier of France, ICTY's head of public information, recalls, "Early on, one judge said to me, 'I feel like a pioneer; this is the forest. We're facing a huge territory and have to find out where the borders are.'"


Deputy Prosecutor Graham T. Blewitt, also from Australia, who was appointed in February 1994, remembers the Tribunal's early days. "It was really a question of determining where to start. The judges had already been appointed. They were here and wanted to hear cases, and of course the prosecutor had the mandate to do the investigations and to bring the cases. But until there were indictments, the judges were sitting there twiddling their thumbs, so they were putting the pressure on." And until enough information and evidence could be gathered to support accusations, there could be no indictments. When ICTY started its work, the fighting was still intense, as Croatia and Serbia trampled over Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Tribunal's small original staff had to set up all its organizational procedures and operational processes, hire enough people to get going and determine what technologies were needed to support their work. Blewitt, adds, "There were no guidelines; there were no precedents." Not to mention no money for consultants. "We had to create something from nothing, and do it in a very skeptical world, but in a world that was demanding action."

The initial technology decision was to have as paperless an office as possible. "Rightly or wrongly, we decided to go on a networked PC basis," recalls Blewitt. "And we chose what was considered the best way to go, namely a Windows platform. We started with 386s, the best that was available, but we were never able to keep up with the advancing technology." Only recently has the Tribunal upgraded to Pentium processors that can run Windows NT.

ICTY now uses NT servers and workstations all around, running on switched/shared 100BaseT ethernet through an ATM backbone. Several services are run on Linux or SCO Unix servers, and there are a handful of Sun Sparcstations and Power Macs in use. In the near future, Tribunal IT staff expects to incorporate an IBM-donated AS/400 server (see Corporate Donations to the War Crimes Tribunal Get Stuck in Red Tape).

Real-Time Law Enforcement

The crimes that the Tribunal was charged with prosecuting had, for the most part, occurred before the Tribunal's foundation, though the fighting continued until 1995 (and then broke out again last year). Investigators often had to return to the scenes of the crimes after witnesses had scattered and sites had been purposely altered or shattered by subsequent battles and bombing.

Still, investigations have yielded massive amounts of information as well as 91 indictments and 37 detentions to date. The Office of the Prosecutor's (OTP's) plan during its pioneering stage was to have a document management system in which every page of every document seized as evidence would be scanned and coded with a unique number. Whenever a document was copied or photocopied, this number would show where it came from, its source and whether it had been used in another case. It proved too expensive for the Tribunal to purchase a ready-made system that could do all that, so it developed its own document management system as well as indexing databases and relational databases. Blewitt notes that they've fallen short of the ideal of cataloging every document. "We might go out and execute a search warrant, for example, in Bosnia, and come back with literally hundreds of thousands of pages," he says. A small percentage of OTP's document holdings are in the database, selected with input from the trial teams who indicate which material they need for particular cases. "The database grows and grows but doesn't have everything in it," laments Blewitt. "We've always been playing catch-up."

In the spring of 1999, the tenuous peace of the Dayton accord dissolved when fighting broke out between Serbs and ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Blewitt says that after the fighting, "Kosovo was one huge crime scene; you can't calculate the number of crimes committed." In that environment, and with the prosecutor's small staff of investigators—only 85, and many of those still working on cases stemming from the fighting in Bosniait would clearly be a challenge to gather evidence.

However, in contrast to Bosnia, ICTY had its procedures and staff already in place, allowing for what former chief prosecutor Louise Arbour (now on the Canadian Supreme Court) called "real-time law enforcement." "Confronted with virtually a million refugees," says Blewitt, "we were able to identify key people fairly quickly, take their statements, get a broad idea of what crimes had been committed. Even as the [NATO] airstrikes were going on, we were making preparations to go in immediately with KFOR [the U.N.'s Kosovo peacekeeping force] to get to the forensic sites before they were damaged." That was particularly important because perpetrators have made a greater effort to destroy the evidence of their crimes since the establishment of the Tribunal.

Though investigators were on the ground more rapidly than they were in Bosnia, much of the evidence they collected was still fairly low-tech, such as written or recorded statements from victims and witnesses. The Tele Info van, on the other hand, illustrates the capacity for IT to assist in the investigation of such widespread and calamitous devastation as Blewitt describes. Once the geocoded visual data from the vehicle's eight cameras is downloaded (to a Netfinity server that IBM donated to the Tribunal), investigators or trial attorneys can use a PC to call up a specific street address or global coordinates and have a dated visual image that will show whether buildings were burned, bullet-riddled or defaced.

This particular technological twist has served two main needs of the investigative process: operational intelligence and actual evidence. For example, if a witness says his village was burned in a specific way, say, they burned the butcher shop and destroyed the post office but didn't destroy three houses across the street because they belonged to Serb families, investigators can use the seamless pictures of the village to verify the claim. That's operational intelligence. Using the visual account to corroborate testimony is extremely important in discovering whether people have told the truth or remembered accurately, and therefore how likely it is that they are telling the truth about other things.

The second and even more important use of the photographic data is to provide evidence, an objective measure of the amount of damage done within Kosovo overall. Tele Info's system was a relatively quick and inexpensive way to do it, according to Paul Risley, spokesman for the prosecutor. In December 1999 the first processed tapes from the van came to the Tribunal and, according to David Falces, chief of the ICTY's electronic support services and communication section, they "appear to provide an accurate wraparound image of the area just after the NATO troops assumed control of the province, and they do show widespread destruction of property."&

IT in the Trenches

As in most organizations, demands on IT workers at the Tribunal continually fluctuate and mutate, often unpredictably. For example, as Greenwood notes, "There is no statute of limitations on genocide." An indictment might be two years old and appear to be languishing when suddenly the accused is captured and the case needs to be brought up-to-date quickly—ssembling evidence for prosecution teams, locating witnesses who may be all over the globe. Greenwood's unit employs 67 people, a mix of IT staff and IT users.

World events also affect demands on Tribunal IT. When hostilities erupted last year in Kosovo, information began pouring in as investigators tried to stay on top of events. The OTP set up a temporary evidence-processing facility in Skopje, Macedonia, to receive and process tens of thousands of items recovered in Pristina, Kosovo, most of which was in document form. "1999 had already seen a massive increase in the evidence processing workload," says Greenwood. "The Kosovo materials represented a further increase amounting to a quarter of the previous year's entire evidence processing workload, and it had to be completed within 11 weeks."

"We were totally slammed," says David Falces of his department, whose 45 members include 22 in IT, seven in communications, 13 in court operations and audiovisual and three in administrative support. "We had to support the sudden establishment of three new field offices [Tirana, Skopje, Pristina], at the same time continuing our operation in The Hague. Not to mention our Y2K program."

The fighting in Kosovo had a ripple effect by flooding Greenwood's information and evidence section, which is probably the biggest customer of the Tribunal's broader IS department. "But three-quarters of what we're their biggest customer for, I can't talk about—operations," says Greenwood. The OTP jealously guards the details of its internal systems and workings in order to safeguard the integrity of its investigations.

Secrets in the Silos

"The worst thing to happen," says Blewitt, "would be for someone to be able to hack into us and expose the fact that, hey, guess what? Here's a list of sealed indictees and we got it from the prosecutor's network."

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