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Balkan Courts Torchbearers of War Crimes Justice

Tribunal president tells conference in Sarajevo responsibility for processing war crimes now lies with national courts in region.
By Velma Šarić

National courts in former Yugoslav states have to be prepared to bear the main responsibility for war crimes trials after the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, winds down its operations in a few years’ time, Judge Patrick Robinson, the tribunal’s president, said this week in Sarajevo.

In his first official visit to the region since his election as head of the court, Judge Robinson also chided Bosnian authorities for dragging their feet on measures needed to ensure war crimes trials in Bosnia are carried out to the same high standard as in The Hague.

“The support to courts in ensuring capacities in national court systems is at the basis of the ICTY inheritance," said Judge Robinson, who delivered the opening speech at a conference organised by the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute, UNICRI, and the Hague tribunal in the Bosnian capital.

The tribunal was supposed to finish its work in 2010, but the judge recently asked the UN Security Council to extend the judges' mandate for an additional two years. He said that the last appeals proceeding before the tribunal was expected in 2013.

“It is a fact that we are concentrating our efforts to terminate the work of the Hague tribunal, but we also intend to ensure continuity through work and support the national courts for war crimes in the region," Judge Robinson said.

“The procedure of forwarding cases by the Hague tribunal prosecution to the national courts has been concluded. It is now their responsibility to work on those cases in the future."

He said he was very concerned that the council of ministers of Bosnia had "failed to ensure funds to implement the National Strategy for the Processing of War Crimes and did not ensure the prolongation of the mandate for foreign judges and prosecutors".

The mandate of international judges and prosecutors working with the Bosnian war crimes court and prosecutor's office expires in December 2009. A law which would extend the mandate of the international personnel was drafted and put forward at the beginning of this year but Bosnia’s council of ministers - an often deadlocked body bringing together officials from both the Muslim-Croat and the Serb part of Bosnia - failed to adopt it.

“It is important to react immediately,” Judge Robinson said. “It is clear that the war crimes department would at a certain point include only domestic judges, but now international judges and prosecutors have a key role when it comes to protecting the integrity of the legal system, and we are not yet in a phase in which they can leave. As long as I am here, I will strongly lobby those institutions that can contribute to the solving of the issue of the extension of their mandates."

"The work of the Hague tribunal and the Court of Bosnia and Hercegovina is key in establishing the reconciliation process," he said.

At the same conference, the tribunal presented the ICTY Manual on Developed Practices, a work published in cooperation with UNICRI.

This manual was produced, Judge Robinson pointed out, "with the aim of maintaining the tribunal's record", and represents the written practice of the tribunal gathered over a period of 16 years of work. UNICRI director Sandro Calvani pointed out that the importance of this manual is huge because this is "the first time the tribunal wrote about itself in this way, and that it includes all trial stages - from investigatory proceedings to the trial itself".

Judge Robinson also said that the "physical archive" of the tribunal is one of its main legacies and will serve as a basis for processing in national courts.

It is expected that the Security Council will reach a decision on keeping the archive by the end of the year, he said.

Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.

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