Global Policy Forum

Hague Tribunal’s Prestige Fades as Closure Looms


By Merima Husejnovic

September 17, 2009

Recent controversial decisions have contributed to a growing loss of faith in the court, even on part of once ardent supporters.

Now in its final stage, the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia, ICTY, appears to have less support from the public than ever before.

Even individuals and organizations that once unconditionally supported its work are now critical, saying they fear the tribunal has lost its way, and that some of its recent decisions are not rendered "in spirit of justice and justness".

"In the final stage of its work, the Tribunal is seriously shaken - I'm saying this even though I support the Tribunal so much and work with it," Fadila Memisevic, president of the Association of Endangered Peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina, says.

"We need the Tribunal but we can't close our eyes and our reasoning has to be critical. It cannot be honoured for the work it has done in recent years," she adds.

Many people still agree that the Tribunal was important for the former Yugoslav countries, and that its existence made it possible for local judicial institutions to start addressing war crimes.

Zagreb philosophy professor Zarko Puhovski - who says the standard of some war crime trials now conducted in Belgrade and Zagreb is higher than those at The Hague - maintains that "this could not have been achieved without the Hague Tribunal. Therein lies the paradox."

However, critics bitterly condemn the Tribunal for several high-profile decisions it has rendered lately. These include the cases of former ICTY prosecution spokesperson Florence Hartmann, the wartime Bosnian Serb leader Biljana Plavsic and the so-called "Vukovar Three".

They object to handling of the ongoing trial of Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj, the abortive trial of Serbia's former leader Slobodan Milosevic and the pre-trial process of the former Bosnian Serb president, Radovan Karadzic.

On September 16 representatives of Bosniak victims of the 1992-5 war held a protest in Sarajevo against the decision to grant Biljana Plavsic early release from prison.

Angered also over the recommendation of the Tribunal to reduce the indictment against Karadzic, they organized a demonstration in front of the Tribunal office in Sarajevo.

Wrong perceptions:

The Hague Tribunal was established in May 1993 to try those responsible for the worst war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

To date, 120 cases conducted before the Tribunal have been completed. Under the ICTY's agreed "exit strategy", all trials, including first and second-instance ones, must end by 2013.

Ever since it was established the Tribunal has encountered negative reactions from politicians and the public in the region, ranging from distrust to complete denial of its authority.

"From the moment the Tribunal was established, the stereotype was created of the court as anti-Serbian and later, particularly during the Milosevic trial, attempts were made to discredit the Tribunal," Sonja Biserko, President of the Helsinki Human Rights Committee in Serbia, says.

"The perception remains among people [in Serbia] that the Tribunal works against Serbia," she adds.

The trial of Milosevic, indicted for war crimes committed in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, began in 2002 but never concluded, as the indictee died in the Hague Detention Unit four years later.

Branko Todorovic, head of the Helsinki Rights Committee in the Republika Srpska, says the ICTY has contributed to the current "wrongful interpretation" of its work by "having been rather closed to the public" for years.

"It ignored the need to present to the local communities in which the crimes were committed its activities its way of work and the basis for its work," he said. "There have been attempts to change that, starting in 2003, but it was rather late."

Katarina Kruhonja, of the Peace Center in Croatia, said the court's reputation in Croatia always suffered from the fact that it was "perceived as a political court that wanted to equalize victims and aggressors".

Human rights activists, meanwhile, have attacked certain decisions rendered by the ICTY in recent years.

"The reputation of the Hague Tribunal is declining. We can no longer speak about criticisms not supported by arguments. We're talking about some odd decisions made by the Tribunal and verdicts that have fuelled mistrust," Todorovic says.

This week's decision, ordering the former spokesperson of the Hague Prosecution, Florence Hartmann, to pay a fine of 7,000 euros for contempt of court, prompted particularly strong criticism.

"I was one of the greatest supporters of the Tribunal. I cooperated with it and I helped it... but now I have serious worries about what is happening there," Natasa Kandic, director of the Belgrade Humanitarian Law Fund, says.

Hartmann was convicted for publishing confidential data from the appellate process of the Milosevic trial in her book, "Peace and Punishment".

Kandic - and many others - maintain that the information that Hartmann publicised was already in the public domain. She says numerous human rights organizations had spoken in public "about the essence of the question covered by this indictment" long before Hartman published her book.

Kandic said the verdict only encouraged a culture of official secrecy and sent a message that the former Yugoslav states "should always hide evidence and documents pertaining to institutional responsibility".

Puhovski agrees. The Hartmann verdict "shows that the Tribunal is more involved in its internal affairs than in the people for whom it was created".

The public is not "losing confidence" in the Tribunal now; they never have much confidence in it in the first place, Puhovski adds. The difference between then and now lies in the fact that while there was less justification for such negativity before, justifications "are more and more obvious" these days.

"Over the past few years things have become so tense that it is not just nationalists who are against the Tribunal - there are serious expert objections to its work," Puhovski told Justice Report.

Always a tough assignment:

Kruhonja considers that the Croatian public's attitude towards the Tribunal changed for the worse after the pronouncement of the verdict in the "Vukovar Three" case.

This was the trial of the three men held most responsible for the mass murder of more than 250 Croats in the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar, after it fell to the Yugoslav Army in 1991.

The victims were taken to a nearby farm at Ovcara, executed and thrown into a mass grave.

The relatively mild sentences dealt out to the three indictees, all senior Yugoslav Army officers, appalled and alienated many Croats.

In May 2009 Mile Mrksic and Veselin Sljivancanin were sentenced to 20 and 17 years' imprisonment, while Miroslav Radic was acquitted of all charges in September 2007.

"The Hague Tribunal received bitter criticism over this. It was a huge failure, which significantly damaged the Tribunal's reputation," Kruhonja said.

Bosniak public opinion, meanwhile, has been disturbed by the recent decision to release Biljana Plavsic, former President of Republika Srpska, after she had served two-thirds of her 11-year sentence for crimes committed in the 1992-5 war in Bosnia.

Evaluating Plavsic's eligibility for early release, the Tribunal stated that she has exhibited good behaviour during the course of her incarceration, „she has participated in the institution's walks, and she also occupies herself by cooking and baking".

As part of the criteria for early release, the Tribunal said it considered the advanced age (she is 79) and health of Biljana Plavsic relevant to the exercise of their discretion.

However, Fadila Memisevic says such a decision only supports allegations that the ICTY has lost credibility. "This has become a farce," she said.

Whatever people's opinions about the recent role of the Tribunal, many wish to record that it has played a very significant role in prompting states in the region to face up to their own recent past.

"The international community demonstrated its ability to establish a court at international level to try perpetrators of the gravest human rights violations," Todorovic says.

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