THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- As prosecutors go, Richard Goldstone may have the world's toughest case.
In his search for evidence of crimes in high places, his most incriminating document turned out to be a forgery. In his efforts to round up smaller fry to put on trial, all but one has remained beyond reach.
Then there's the matter of Mr. Goldstone's employers. They keep going to his top suspects to ask for help, understanding and favors.
Such are the facts of life for the chief prosecutor of the United Nations war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Not since the post-World War II trials at Nuremberg and Tokyo has there been such a proceeding, although this one has little in common with its predecessors.
The earlier tribunals chose suspects from the vantage point of victors culling the vanquished and were aided by some of the most voluminous records ever kept by killers.
Mr. Goldstone's team of investigators, by comparison, must account for a war's most horrible actions before the fighting has even stopped. There is virtually no paper trail leading to the top, and no guarantee that his most important suspects won't end up dictating the terms of peace -- terms which might even guarantee the suspects' immunity from prosecution.
But for all his difficulties, Mr. Goldstone figures one important goal is attainable even if he fails to make a single conviction.
Providing an official recognition of what has taken place, he said, might help break the cycle of ethnic violence in the former Yugoslavia, where past sins have tended to go not only unpunished but unacknowledged until they have erupted into the next round of retribution.
"I'm always haunted by the thought that if there had been a proper addressing at the time of what caused the hate and anger, then one could have broken the cycle," Mr. Goldstone said at his office.
But most of Mr. Goldstone's goals are of the more conventional sort for a prosecutor. He wants convictions, the bigger the better.
"We have adopted the strategy from the earliest days of this office of targeting leaders," he said. After 10 months on the job, some of his biggest targets are coming into focus.
By the end of the year the tribunal is expected to indict Radovan Karadzic, president of the self-styled government of the Bosnian Serbs; Gen. Ratko Mladic, commander of the Bosnian Serb army; and Mico Stanisic, head of the Bosnian Serbs' police forces.
"I think we're making good progress in not only seeing the big picture but in getting into position to establish it," Mr. Goldstone said.
Some might consider such optimism little more than a brave front if the 56-year-old Mr. Goldstone had not already participated in one of the century's more startling reversals of injustice.
Role in ending apartheid
A prominent South African judge, he headed a 1991 commission that investigated his country's history of political violence. In three years of work the commission established the culpability of members of state political organizations and security forces. It became a key psychological step in dismantling the apartheid system, mostly by providing the same sort of official acknowledgment of misdeeds he hopes the U.N. tribunal will produce.
But even that assignment didn't prepare him for some of the difficulties he faces now.
His biggest problem is getting custody of people to stand trial. So far the tribunal has indicted 22 people, all Bosnian Serbs. All but one of them are charged with alleged atrocities in connection with the Omarska detention camp in 1992, when Serb forces were "ethnically cleansing" Muslims and Croats from northwest Bosnia.
Only one of those 22 people, Dusan Tadic, is in custody -- and only because he was spotted by witnesses in Germany, where he was detained by authorities and sent to The Hague.
The rest, Mr. Goldstone said, "are all in the area administered by the Bosnian Serbs," where officials have vowed not to turn over any suspects.
Mr. Goldstone is also reminded almost constantly that he is not operating in a political vacuum.
For example, when the Bosnian Serbs earlier this month rounded up U.N. peacekeepers as hostages and "human shields," the tribunal filed the information away as further evidence in the case against the Serb leadership. But other U.N. officials were appealing to that same leadership for leniency and mercy.
"I don't feel any sense of frustration or unhappiness because politicians must do their job and we must do ours," Mr. Goldstone says of such situations.
But some Western officials occasionally seem unhappy about the tribunal, sometimes openly expressing concern that an ill-timed indictment of Mr. Karadzic might harm the peace process.
So far, Mr. Goldstone said he has never been pressured either directly or indirectly by any government. But would he, perhaps, delay an indictment on his own if he felt the timing wasn't right politically?
"No," he said. Then he hesitated.
"Look, it's impossible to give a categorical no. In fact, let me withdraw that. Maybe. It would really depend on the nature of the indictment. It would depend on our ability to assess the effect that it may have. . . . I can't conceive of a situation where a delay of a week is going to make the difference. In fact, it may be as well to get it out earlier rather than later. I wouldn't want to be a party to any deception, because certainly we wouldn't withhold indicting somebody because of any peace treaty."
Building a case against the top figures hasn't been easy, partly because of the lack of documents. He admits he has virtually none.
One interesting set did come to the tribunal earlier. It was a collection of papers smuggled out by Cedomir Mihailovic, a former secret policeman in Serbia. The police documents, supposedly written over a 15-month period, linked the operation of concentration camps in Bosnia to high-ranking officials in the government of Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic.
Alas, forensic testing showed the documents to be fakes.
Tough case to build
Without that sort of paper trail, investigators have been left to build the case against the leadership from the bottom up, establishing a pyramid of facts from the cases against the lower-ranking suspects that will reach all the way to the top.
But this sort of broad-based strategy has left the tribunal's 50 investigators searching for literally thousands of pieces of evidence. When asked about what the tribunal still needs most, Mr. Goldstone said, "It's really detail. It's facts. There's no particular gaping hole. It's a hard grind of sending investigators into the field in many, many countries to interview witnesses, to assess reliability of witnesses, to check it against other information."
Just to round up the information for the Omarska camp indictments took five months of work by 20 investigators traveling to 12 countries as far away as Malaysia.
Besides the "ethnic cleansing" and concentration camps, crimes sure to be laid at the feet of Dr. Karadzic and General Mladic are the siege of Sarajevo, with Serb snipers systematically targeting civilians, and artillery directing fire at hospitals, funeral processions and water distribution points.
But even if the tribunal manages to build ironclad cases against Dr. Karadzic and General Mladic, it might make little difference if the accused can never be brought to trial. The United Nations has already decided no suspects will be tried in absentia.
And if the tribunal can't get custody of foot soldiers, how can it expect to round up their commanders?
"As to whether and when people will be detained, your guess is as good as mine," Mr. Goldstone said. "But one thing I do know is it's very unsafe to make any assumption when it comes to a political event. I wouldn't like to have an international warrant hanging over my head and have to depend on a safe haven in one particular country."
There's also the possibility leaders could broker amnesty as part of peace negotiations, especially if their side wins the war. Mr. Goldstone finds that possibility doubtful, because it would take a vote by the U.N. Security Council to authorize any such amnesty.
But if it happened, he said, some good might still come of it for the people seeking the so-called "official acknowledgment" of crimes.
"The very fact that someone has to apply for and be granted an amnesty is an acknowledgment the person committed the offense," he said.