(New York) – The U.S. government has chosen a highly inappropriate moment to publicly criticize the work of United Nations war crimes courts, Human Rights Watch said today.

Pierre-Richard Prosper, the U.S. ambassador at large for war-crimes issues, testified before the House International Relations Committee. In his statement he said that “problems” at the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia “challenge the integrity of the process.”

One of the courts, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, has recently undertaken the trial of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, the first-ever trial of a head of state for human rights crimes. On the same day as Prosper´s remarks, NATO staged a publicized raid to bring accused war criminal Radovan Karadzic before the tribunal. Human Rights Watch welcomed this step, however overdue, and urged NATO to persevere.

“The Yugoslav tribunal has just begun the world´s most important criminal trial since Nuremberg,” said Richard Dicker, Director of the International Justice Program at Human Rights Watch. “The U.S. government is jeopardizing that effort. The timing of Ambassador Prosper´s statement is incomprehensible.”

Ambassador Prosper called for the tribunals to be shut down by 2007-08. Dicker pointed out that the two tribunals were designed to last only for a limited period of time. In fact, the chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, in statements made to the U.N. Security Council on November 26, 2001, laid out a plan for terminating the work of the tribunals by 2008.

“What´s the point of manufacturing a confrontation with allies when the US plan is virtually identical to the tribunal prosecutor´s own plan?” said Dicker. “If individual governments try to dictate what prosecutions they want done and when prosecutions should stop, then the courts´ independence suffers.”

Prosper also proposed leaving less serious war-crimes cases to national courts in the region.

“With so many senior indicted officials at liberty in Yugoslavia, it is folly to talk about leaving most suspects to domestic justice systems,” said Dicker. “It´s a nice idea, but the justice system in Belgrade is nowhere near ready. The same is true of the system in Kigali.”

Prosper suggested that the Bush Administration would be willing to improve economic, technical, legal and logistical support to help improve domestic court systems in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. Dicker said that such assistance would surely be welcome, but it should not come at the expense of international justice.

In Rwanda, Dicker noted, the government has proposed using “gacaca” trials at the local community level to try serous human rights crimes. In these trials, the accused would be “tried” in front of persons from the community. “Gacaca jurisdictions” lack adequate safeguards for the victims and the accused.”

Dicker acknowledged there had been some problems in the operations of the Rwanda tribunal. Of the more than seventy indictees at the Rwanda Tribunal, nine have been tried and seventeen are currently on trial.

Of eighty individuals who have been indicted at the Yugoslav Tribunal, thirty-one have been tried and twelve are currently on trial.

“Of course these tribunals have not operated without problems, and those problems are no secret to people who follow the tribunals´ work,” said Dicker. “But Pierre Prosper didn´t seem interested in making the tribunals function better. He seems to want to tear them apart, and that would be a very serious mistake.”