Global Policy Forum

Goran Hadzic's Prosecution: International Justice at Last


On July 20, Goran Hadzic, the former president of the Republic of Serbian Krajina was arrested after seven years on the run. Of the 161 individuals indicted for war crimes by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Hadzic is the last one to be captured. Hadzic is charged on counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity including torture, extermination and deportation of the non-Serb population of Croatia. The arrest of Hadzic, following the well-known arrests of Radovan Karadzic in 2008 and Ratko Mladic earlier this year, sets a milestone for the 18 years long work of the UN war crime tribunal.

By Marko Vlasic

August 13, 2011

The timing couldn't have been more auspicious. Just days after International Justice Day (the anniversary of the International Criminal Court's treaty adoption), justice caught up with Goran Hadzic, the UN war crimes tribunal's last remaining indictee.

On the run for seven years, Hadzic, whose charges include the slaughter of hundreds Croats and other non-Serbs from Vukovar hospital in 1991, was identified and arrested not for another violent act against non-Serbs, but for his illicit dealings in Italian art. The man behind one of the most infamous massacres during the war in the Balkans, the Vukovar massacre, was brought down after he attempted to sell allegedly plundered art – in this case, a Portrait of a Man, by 20th-century Italian painter, Amedeo Modigliani. The last time the spotlight focused on Hadzic, he was the president of republic of Serbian Krajina, in Serb-controlled Croatia. Once powerful, arrogant and seemingly invincible, despite a UN indictment for 14 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, and after years on the run, the former president, it seems, was reduced to peddling stolen art to survive.

For the "ad hoc" war crimes tribunal in The Hague, the arrest and recent court appearance of Hadzic marks the beginning of the end. Established by the United Nations security council in 1993, the tribunal's prosecutors indicted 161 alleged war criminals, from all three main ethnic groups in the former Yugoslavia – Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims. Over the years, however, many have doubted whether all the indictees would be brought to justice.

And indeed, over the years, they have not all come willingly. On many occasions, including in many of the cases on which I once worked while in the office of the prosecutor, they were brought to justice not by local government arrests, but due to the outstanding assistance of Nato-led special forces commandos. It is fair to say that, in the earlier days of the tribunal, there would have been far fewer trials, had the tribunal been forced to rely entirely on local officials to arrest those who were indicted in The Hague.

Thankfully, over time, this has changed. National leaders in the Balkans, who once scored political points by bashing the tribunal and its professional staff, are now seeing the wisdom in cooperating with tribunal judges, prosecutors and staff – and perhaps not just to gain better standing in the eyes of the European Union and the United States. Sadly, not all national leaders have been equally cooperative and equally responsible. Some still continue to live in the past and, in doing so, arguably hinder their own future, and the future of their people.

But for those responsible officials who have decided to look forward, and for those who have chosen to assist the tribunal in its efforts to help bring peace and justice to the region, Hadzic's arrest marks, as Chief Prosecutor Serge Brammertz called it, a "milestone". Of the 161 indictments issued by the tribunal, not a single one now remains at large.

For the experiment that is international justice and its international tribunals – an experiment that begin in Nuremberg 65 years ago – this is a milestone that should be celebrated. And those who made it possible can congratulate themselves: the tribunal's tenacious staff and their supporters, whether they may be found in the general assembly and security council of the United Nations, or in the many national government offices that decided, year after year, to provide additional funding and support to the institution.

But we should recognise that the triumph marked by Hadzic's court appearance will be short-lived. It will be overtaken quickly by events in Sudan, Syria, Libya and elsewhere in the world. But for those suffering in Sudan, Libya and elsewhere – and awaiting the day of justice for Omar Al-Bashir and Muammar Gaddafi – the Balkan milestone serves as a reminder that justice is possible and, with time, it will come – so long as we demand nothing less from our national and international leaders.


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