Global Policy Forum

Jury Still Out on Tribunal's Success


Now There's Record of What Happened in Former Yugoslavia

By Don Melvin

Cox News Service
November 13, 2005

Everything in this courtroom in the Hague, Netherlands — the rules, the decorum, the judges in scarlet robes — seems a world away from the battlefield blood, murder and mayhem around which these proceedings revolve. But observers say the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has accomplished a great deal. It has forged a new area of international law, threatening consequences for those who would commit crimes with impunity on the battlefield. Military commanders have something to think about even in the heat of war. "It's almost an assumption now that there will be a justice mechanism after conflict," said Edgar Chen, of the Washington-based non-profit Coalition for International Justice.

Through the testimony of 4,000 witnesses, the tribunal has created an incontrovertible historical record of what happened in the former Yugoslavia — no small accomplishment in a land where competing historical myths have so often caused blood to be shed. But the tribunal has not been an unalloyed success. It was slow to explain itself to the people of the region. It became a divisive issue between those who thought the proceedings were necessary and those who viewed them as victor's justice, a mechanism by which those who won the wars could punish those who lost.

The trial of former Yugoslav and Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, charged with genocide in Bosnia and war crimes in Kosovo and Croatia, will soon enter its fourth year — an indication, some say, that the process has defects. About 61 percent of Bosnians polled last spring said they were dissatisfied with the tribunal's slow pace of prosecutions. Half said the tribunal's work was helping either very little or not at all in moving Bosnia's ethnic groups toward forgiveness.

The two most prominent figures accused with crimes in connection with the Bosnian conflict are still on the lam: former Bosnian President Radovan Karadzic and his top military commander, Ratko Mladic, both of whom have been charged with genocide in connection with the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in July 1995. Both are thought to be receiving assistance from Serb nationalists and benefiting from a reluctance of national governments to arrest them. In October, Karadzic published a book of poems, Under the Left Breast of the Century.

The tribunal was set up in 1993 by a resolution of the U.N. Security Council. While its mandate has expanded to include crimes committed in Croatia and Kosovo, its initial focus was mass killings and systematic rape in Bosnia. Bosnia has accounted for the bulk of its work. So far, 161 people have been indicted. The tribunal does not keep count of where crimes occurred. But the Coalition for International Justice estimates that 126 of those were charged with crimes in Bosnia.

The trials are held in a big stone building in The Hague that used to house an insurance company. Visitors must pass through security twice, once when entering the building and a second time upon entering the area that houses the courtrooms. Of the 161 charged, Karadzic, Mladic and five others remain at large. Of the remaining defendants:

•Thirty-two have been transferred to prisons of various countries to serve their sentences (15 of them have finished their sentences).

•Seventy-nine are awaiting trial, either in detention or on provisional release.

•Three have been transferred for trial to one of the countries in the region — a process the tribunal hopes to accelerate as local justice systems are strengthened.

•Thirty-five had their indictments withdrawn when they died.

•Five have been acquitted, either at trial or on appeal.

The tribunal has a staff of about 1,200. Its budget has risen over the years to nearly $136 million in 2004. It hopes to complete its work by 2008. Jim Landale, a tribunal spokesman, said its work has been "a huge cathartic process in the region."

Other observers are more nuanced in their comments. "I think it's an essential part of the process of reconciliation," said Janet Anderson of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting. "However, the physical distance between the tribunal and the countries it's dealing with, and the perceived distance between reality on the ground and 'international justice' with robed judges, is so great that I think we have a long way to go." But, she added, "I think it's set an example, it's blazed a trail, which means you now have a recognition in all the Balkans that war crimes must be dealt with."

More Information on International Justice
More International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia Articles
More Information on the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia
More Information on Radovan Karadzic
More Information on Ratko Mladic


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