In a letter sent today to the President of Macedonia, Human Rights Watch expressed concern that a pending amnesty law for crimes related to last year's armed conflict could shield war criminals from prosecution.

The law-first promised by President Trajkovski at the start of the peace process last fall-is expected to be introduced in Parliament today.

"Serious violations of the laws of war have been committed by both sides to the armed conflict and accountability for those crimes has to be an essential part of the peace process," said Elizabeth Andersen, Executive Director of the Europe and Central Asia division at Human Rights Watch. "The international tribunal can hear only a handful of cases. If the Macedonian authorities cannot hear the rest, then serious crimes like torture, murder, and attacks on civilians will go unpunished."

Human Rights Watch does not oppose an amnesty per se, but urged that it preserve the possibility of prosecutions of violations of international humanitarian law by either the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia or the Macedonian authorities.

The legislation was not yet publicly available, but Human Rights Watch expressed concern over reports that drafts under consideration would acknowledge the international tribunal's jurisdiction, but bar Macedonian courts from prosecuting violations of international humanitarian law or crimes against humanity. Human Rights Watch urged President Trajkovski to oppose such legislation and not to sign it if it passes parliament with such wording.

NATO and other international actors involved in the Macedonia peace process consider the amnesty an important step toward building inter-ethnic confidence in Macedonia. But Human Rights Watch cautioned that a sweeping amnesty that prevents domestic prosecutions for violations of international humanitarian law would be counterproductive.

"The peace will be only as strong as the justice is thorough," Andersen said. "Eliminating domestic jurisdiction over these cases would be a big mistake."

A Macedonia amnesty that bars national courts from hearing cases involving violations of international humanitarian law would be contrary to norms of international justice reflected in the treaty that established the International Criminal Court (ICC), expected to come into force in just a few months. The Macedonia amnesty would strip the national courts of jurisdiction, in favor of the international tribunal. By contrast, the 139 countries that have signed the ICC treaty have reinforced national courts' role as the first line of prosecution, allowing the international court to step in only where the national courts are unwilling or unable to act.