WASHINGTON -- Richard Goldstone has a most unusual assignment.
As chief prosecutor for the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, he is responsible for investigating the mass executions, systematic rapes and other horrors committed since in the former Yugoslavia.
He has been barred from some of the crucial crime scenes -- territories controlled by the Bosnian Serbs. He has no police or army to arrest suspects. Worse, he can't be sure that the world's leaders will back him up.
But anyone predicting that Balkan justice will fall victim to politics may be underestimating Mr. Goldstone's determination and guile. He has been a distinguished judge in his native South Africa -- and is not a novice to working under pressure.
He is investigating the massacres in 1994 of an estimated half-million people in Rwanda. He has already brought indictments against the Bosnian Serbs' top civilian and military leaders.
The indictments are supposed to lead to war-crimes trials, if and when the accused are taken into custody. The trials are supposed to take place even if there are concerns that the proceedings will undo the Bosnia peace accord scheduled to be signed this week in Paris.
Mr. Goldstone is already poring over the text of the peace agreement to find provisions that can be used to increase the tribunal's authority and to gain access to new evidence. People familiar with his work say that he won't flinch from seeking an indictment against Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic if the evidence against him is persuasive.
There's nothing bullheaded about Mr. Goldstone. His strength is a combination of shrewd timing and a sense of how far he can push.
Recently, when U.S. intelligence agencies were slow in providing information to the tribunal, Mr. Goldstone fired off a letter to a U.S. Embassy official that found its way to the Washington Post. Shamed U.S. officials quickly promised better cooperation.
When United Nations money ran short this year for his Rwanda investigation, Mr. Goldstone personally solicited international contributions, in the process making it known that he was being forced to operate on a financial shoestring.
"He's a very political animal," says Gay McDougall, executive director of the International Human Rights Law Group.
"The public can take Goldstone at his word that he will follow the evidence wherever it leads," says Diane Orentlicher, an American University law professor who is a member of the Coalition for International Justice, a private group set up to mobilize support for the tribunal's work.
Mr. Goldstone, 57, emerged as a public figure in the 1980s, when he earned respect of both whites and blacks in his native South Africa, then one of the most polarized societies on Earth. He did so by convincing all sides that he would be guided by the facts.
A product of South Africa's liberal Jewish community, he was never comfortable with the apartheid he was required to enforce. The judiciary was widely viewed as more moderate than the all-white government, but Mr. Goldstone "was one of the few South African judges that I would say really strove to make it a system of justice," Ms. McDougall says.
"Many of his colleagues did not make efforts to buck the system."
While a Transvaal Supreme Court judge in 1982, he helped weaken the legal foundations of apartheid, ruling that nonwhites could be evicted from white areas only if they could find shelter somewhere else. The ruling halted prosecutions under the law that required residential areas to be racially segregated.
After investigating the 1989 shooting deaths of 11 black demonstrators, he sharply criticized South African police for lack of discipline and use of excessive force.
In 1992, as head of a commission on political violence, he triggered a shake-up of the South African military, after the panel's investigators raided an intelligence office and discovered plans to smear members of the African National Congress.
Two years later, he rocked the government by uncovering collusion between white police officials and the Zulu-led Inkatha Freedom Party to undermine the ANC. By then, the apartheid system had all but crumbled.
By carefully choosing when to act, he sometimes achieved results that surpassed expectations.
This was the case in 1992, when he oversaw the preparation of new rules for how South African police and the ANC should handle demonstrations. They called on police to reduce the use of force against demonstrators and the ANC to assign monitors for crowd control.
Philip B. Heymann, a Harvard Law School professor and a member of the panel, expected that the proposals would be sent to parliament for debate but no action. Instead, Mr. Goldstone summoned leaders of the police and the ANC, and publicly pressured them to agree immediately to the new rules.
"He's very bold. He doesn't hesitate on the grounds that he would be exceeding his authority," says Mr. Heymann.
As someone able to satisfy polar opposites in South Africa, he became a convenient choice when the U.N. Security Council found itself deadlocked over the appointment of a war-crimes prosecutor for the Balkans.
The Clinton administration's candidate was vetoed by Europeans because he was perceived as sympathetic to Bosnia's Muslims. Russia opposed a Westerner. Once Mr. Goldstone became available, however, the council quickly approved him.
In important ways, the tribunal in The Hague faces a tougher task than the Nuremberg panel that prosecuted the Nazi leadership after World War II.
Germany had been defeated, many of its key leaders were in custody and the Nazis had kept voluminous records that fell into the hands of prosecutors.
This time, the cases must be built from testimony of witnesses, many of them refugees scattered throughout Europe. There has been limited access to the territory where crimes occurred.
There is also the problem of bringing defendants into court. Although the leaders of Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia have pledged to cooperate with the tribunal, they face no immediate pressure to do so. Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the indicted Bosnian Serb leaders, remain at large and in control of their rump republic of Srbska.
Rather than bemoan the obstacles he faces, Mr. Goldstone tends to look for ways around them. The peace accords require that investigators be granted unrestricted access to Bosnia. And Mr. Goldstone plans to press the point.
"We are going to use all the possibilities open to us by the Dayton peace agreement," says Christian Chartier, a spokesman for Mr. Goldstone. "And there are quite a lot."