Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Balkan War Crimes Court Plan Gains Little Support

Opponents say proposal looks good on paper, but in reality there are too many practical obstacles.
Bosnian officials, angry at war crimes suspects evading justice by crossing national borders, have suggested establishing a single court for ex-Yugoslavia when the Hague tribunal closes in two years time.

The proposal has met scant support from other countries in the region, but reflects some original thinking in the Balkans about how to proceed once the court shuts.

The Hague tribunal must hear its last case by the end of next year, and its last appeal by 2010, with several top war crimes suspects still at large.

Marinko Jurcevic, the chief state prosecutor for Bosnia and Hercegovina, is particularly frustrated by dual nationality. A suspect who holds, say, a Croatian or a Serbian passport can leave Bosnia knowing he will not be extradited back again. This is why Jurcevic has proposed a regional court.

“That would be a way to solve all of the issues people are talking about,” he said following a discussion among the region’s chief prosecutors about the challenges of war crimes cases.

“It would also be a method to show the world that only through regional integration will we be able to deal with the crimes, the war crimes that were committed.”

The nature of the war in the former Yugoslavia, when ethnic Serbs and ethnic Croats fought in Bosnia or Croatia means justice is unusually plagued by issues of jurisdiction. This was not a problem for the tribunal, which can demand suspects from anywhere, but is frustrating for local courts.

The president of the Court of Bosnia and Hercegovina, Medzida Kreso, told the Sarajevo-base daily Avaz that a regional court could try fugitives who manage to evade capture after 2010. The most high-profile of all the suspects, Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, remain at large.

She said the Balkan court could be based in Zagreb, Sarajevo or Belgrade and work in accordance with standards currently applied at The Hague.

"Judges could be from Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, and why not even from Macedonia,” she was quoted as saying.

But for international experts and for officials in Serbia or Croatia, the proposal is just wishful thinking which goes against the tide of the last few years, when substantial resources have been poured into strengthening local courts.

“It’s a nice idea on paper, but in reality there are far too many practical obstacles,” said James Rodehaver, chief of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe’s department of human rights and the rule of law in Sarajevo.

He estimated it would take a minimum of two to three years before a regional court could recruit and train the staff it needed to even begin functioning efficiently, and that’s not including time for the political negotiations that would be needed to establish it.

“I don’t think the region has two to three or even three to four years to make those sorts of strides,” he said. “After so many resources and so much time and political capital have been invested in improving the court systems of the region, it’s now better to hold those systems accountable.”

And how would the court even function?

“This idea’s isn’t good, because international law is one big principle and must be applied equally to everyone. My opinion is that the International Criminal Court must be recognised as the unique international court for all countries,” said Belgrade lawyer and international legal expert Ivan Bajazit.

“Even if it were set up, such a regional court would have to be under United Nations jurisdiction. Regional courts don’t have the power or authority to bring justice as an international court does.”

However, even if the regional court idea is a non-starter, most legal experts are convinced that Balkan-wide cooperation is necessary to ensure war crimes suspects do not manage to evade justice.

The UN Development Programme has organised meetings of regional judges and prosecutors to discuss issues common to them all, and it said there was a broad consensus that they could not just retreat to national boundaries after 2010.

Its suggestion for a “regional expert commission to examine the harmonisation of penal policies in order to facilitate the transfer of cases from one national court to another” lacks the drama of a regional court, but is certainly more realistic. And such low-level cooperation is the future, said Ljubica Gojdic, the Hague correspondent from Serbia’s B92 television.

“I think that the biggest success of the Hague tribunal was establishing local courts for war crimes. Witnesses from Bosnia and Croatia came to Serbia, and those from Serbia have gone to Bosnia and Croatia. Those courts and prosecutors exchange evidence, and their mutual co-operation is evident,” she said.

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