by Sandy Kendall

IT in a War Crimes Tribunal

Feb 15, 200019 mins
IT LeadershipNetworkingVirtualization

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.”

David Falces points out further gradations of that fear. “Even [using an internet] system that’s—quote unquote—100 percent reliable could undermine our work. So many major sites have been hacked—NATO, for example—that even if nothing sensitive was or could be hacked here, we’d have a perception problem. Witnesses might not come forward; indictees might not turn themselves in.” The NATO site was crashed during the fighting in Kosovo when it was deliberately flooded with more e-mail than it could handle, allegedly by Serbs angry over NATO’s bombing of Belgrade.

The Tribunal is different from enterprises that today are knocking themselves out trying to integrate and get rid of silos. “We’ve always insisted on separate and discrete standalone networks—we want that—and we won’t allow any external access to [ours],” says Blewitt. This strict separation of the OTP makes life a little inconvenient. Even investigators in the field, who are OTP staff, cannot dial in to the network; the prosecutor herself could not access it from outside the court building.

Complicating matters further is what Greenwood calls the almost schizophrenic need to balance security and transparency. “One of the hardest, most interesting things is that we have to protect witnesses and people doing investigations, but because we’re a public organization and need our results known, we have to be open.” For OTP staff, that means literally having two computers on their desks, one for OTP and one for the rest of the world, including other Tribunal departments.

As part of the goal to be as open as possible, Chartier’s unit developed a website, “It’s not great,” he says, “but it gets the information out there; it does the job.” Press releases are posted and archived there, as are proceedings of the court, so anyone interested can follow a case to see when an appeal has been filed and so on. There are no photos or interactive bells and whistles.

The Digital Courtroom

All the work of the Tribunal comes to a head in its three courtrooms in The Hague. Visitors and press pass through two sets of metal detectors before entering the gallery and picking up a wireless headset that can be tuned to English, French or BCS (Bosnian-Croatian-Serbian). Sound- and small-arms-proof glass separate the gallery from the actual courtroom, which is dignified, modern and simple, but wired to the hilt.

Many people are familiar with photos and footage of the Nuremberg courtroom—large, teeming with people and every flat surface covered with papers. ICTY’s courtrooms seem spare by comparison, and far more security-conscious.

A panel of three robed judges faces the gallery from a raised platform. Just in front of them sit the court stewards and stenographers. Facing the judges, with its back toward the gallery, is the witness stand. With defense on the gallery’s left and prosecution on the right, the legal personnel occupy tables angled to face both judges and witnesses. Behind the defense, the accused sits at a desk, a guard on either side. One can study the accused, looking for a revelation of evil, but for the most part they are decidedly ordinary-looking men. Even Goran Jelesic, a former agricultural machinery mechanic who allegedly called himself the “Serb Adolf,” looks harmless as the monitor displays a series of photos of him shooting men in the backs of their heads as they walked down the street under his guard. Jelesic pleaded guilty to 31 counts of crimes against humanity and violations of the customs or laws of war. He was acquitted on one count of genocide. On Dec. 14, 1999, he was sentenced to 40 years’ imprisonment, the Tribunal’s harshest sentence to date.

Jelesic’s monitor, like those on the desks of the judges, lawyers, stewards and witnesses, displays evidence being referred to by either side. What brings the evidence to the monitor is a souped-up overhead projector called a visualizer but more fondly known as Elmo after one company that makes them, Elmo Europe of Germany. From its place next to the witness stand, Elmo doesn’t actually project but transmits to the computer monitors a live image of a piece of evidence placed on its surface—a map, say, or an article of clothing.


The early post-World War II building that houses the Tribunal required retrofitting, particularly for security, but also to accommodate courtrooms. The judges and technology staff worked together to design the most efficient courtroom possible. They studied other courtrooms around the world and developed policies for the use of technology. For example, they found that in most courtrooms a great deal of time is spent handing out exhibits and flipping through pages, which could be alleviated if the exhibits could be called up on everybody’s computer screens at once by the court steward.

The courtroom R&D was conducted at the time of the O.J. Simpson trial in the United States, which ironically influenced ICTY planners because they recognized the parallel with their proceedings: high visibility and gruesome content. In fact, the clunky computers used in the California courtrooms inspired the Tribunal’s design team to lower the monitors into the surface of the desks, enabling courtroom personnel to see over the tops. It was very important to the judges that the technology not dehumanize or dwarf any of the participants.

When the trials began in 1996, the ICTY courtrooms were the most technology-rich working courtrooms in the world, using both off-the-shelf and custom-made software. Besides displaying exhibits to all parties simultaneously, the system features a real-time court-reporting product from LiveNote, a Philadelphia-based software company, which immediately makes available the stenographer’s transcript in English. The transcript is searchable so that, for instance, a lawyer can check back through testimony to discover conflict or corroboration between witnesses. Also, using LiveNote in conjunction with a program called Premier Power, judges and lawyers can annotate their copy of the transcript or mark passages with keywords for reference later in developing verdicts, opinions or further questions. LiveNote programmers modified the commercially shipped version for the Tribunal in order to display time coding. That makes it simpler to make redactions from the transcript when needed for witness protection. (For example, if the sex of a witness is supposed to be unknown, but a judge accidentally uses a gender-specific pronoun, that will be edited out.)

The technology staff had to push hard to get all the equipment needed for the first courtroom to be wired. For each piece of technology, they had to establish how it would or could improve the functioning of the court. When planning the courtroom’s video capability, for example, IT pushed for digital 8 cameras and at first met with some resistance: “Why do you need such an expensive video camera in here—I’ve got a great one at home that cost only a thousand dollars,” a judge (who had to approve the expenditure) said. Slowly the reasoning for the need for high-quality equipment became clear to even the most recalcitrant technophobes. (For example, the digital video recorder was needed to transfer evidence that might come in the form of low-quality home video to digital tape to stabilize it for copying and storing; a Boss VT-1 Voice Transformer could be used to alter the voices of witnesses to protect their anonymity.)

The courtroom work is the most enjoyable part of the IS staff’s job, says Falces. “It’s like television and IT combined.” Indeed, a videotape of the proceedings is in constant production—played live on gallery monitors and aired with a half-hour delay for broadcast pickup or for compulsive cable TV court-watchers. (The half-hour delay allows for redactions to protect witnesses.) Before any cases were heard, judges had to decide whether the courtroom would even allow cameras. In some countries in which judges, lawyers or witnesses live it is not legal. In the Netherlands, where the court is located, it is not legal. But the judges decided that the overriding importance of making the world aware of the trials justified the presence of cameras. They set guidelines. The video director, who requested anonymity for this article, says he will not focus on a crying or traumatized witness beyond the second it takes to record that emotion and communicate what is happening in the courtroom. Likewise, although the camera turns to the accused occasionally, it does not linger. Like much else at the Tribunal, the production must walk a fine line of legal functionality and public interest.

A Qualified Success

“With the exception of the reason for why we were created, we are a success story,” says Public Information Chief Chartier. A poster of sunny Paris on one wall of his office balances a sequence of black-and-white photos depicting a street battle on the opposite side. “Of course we’d all rather be elsewhere, rather there was no need for it, rather people weren’t murdered, raped and tortured. But since we have to be here, we are glad to have the best people we can, glad to be doing it,” he says.

Blewitt and Chartier both say that the biggest changes in the Tribunal’s last five years are that things have become somewhat routine, that in some ways the place has begun to run itself. The organization just has to respond to problems as they come up, points out Blewitt. “I think Kosovo was a good test of how well we perform,” he says.

Despite having its procedures and staff in place, and being able to handle the new problems that constantly crop up, the enduring pressure of its task remains. Christian Chartier sums up the feeling of many ICTY staff when he says, “I feel personally, very deeply, that we are the Tribunal for Yugoslavia. It’s important that people there see justice done while they are living, if it is to help them restart life, begin healing. So the challenge of time is always with us.”

Photo credits: City by Georges Merillon/Liaison Agency; ICTY team by Bart Marijnen/Liaison Agency; Courtroom by AP Photo/Peter Dejong.