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

Carla Del Ponte: Successful Yet Flawed

Critics say more suspects could have been indicted under the chief prosecutor’s watch, but others argue her persistence kept war crimes issue high on the international agenda.
Although Carla Del Ponte, the outgoing chief prosecutor at the Yugoslav tribunal, is justifiably proud that during her eight-year tenure, her team of prosecutors has succeeded in convicting dozens of Balkans war criminals, critics say she has let too many officials through the net who might have been found guilty.

They say that under her watch, prosecutors at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, failed to secure a speedy conviction against former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, neglected to indict his suspected accomplices and were unable to bring high-profile suspects Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic to the dock.

Since coming to office, Del Ponte has maintained relentless pressure on the countries of the region to surrender fugitives and her team has brought a total of 91 suspects into custody.

Refik Hodzic, spokesman for the tribunal in Bosnia, credits her persistence for these successes.

“I am not sure that we would have otherwise been able to have all these trials at the Hague tribunal, which are of great importance because of the facts that have come up during the proceedings,” he said.

It is easy to forget quite how much the ICTY has achieved since Del Ponte took the job in 1999.

“The prosecution has proved beyond reasonable doubt that genocide was committed in Srebrenica, that rape was used as an instrument of terror and should be considered a crime against humanity and that the crimes against civilians during the siege of Sarajevo merit the highest sentence,” she herself said, when asked to list her main accomplishments.

However, critics wonder whether the ICTY won’t be remembered more for the ones that got away.

Many believe Del Ponte’s dogged pursuit of Milosevic meant that other officials who controlled Serbia during the Balkan wars of the Nineties escaped charges. When the former president died in March 2006, four years into a long, overly complex trial, victims of the conflict were left bitterly disappointed.

“I think that as a manager of prosecutors and as a manager of the prosecutorial process, by any measure she has been terrible,” said American historian Robert Donia.

“She tried to focus exclusively on the Milosevic case and tried to divide that amongst three teams who did not coordinate their efforts all that well, and so deprived not only the trial chamber but the general public of a holistic view of Milosevic’s intentions and actions as a leader of former Yugoslavia.”

This criticism was echoed by director of the Sarajevo Research and Documentation Centre Mirsad Tokaca.

He said that while other prosecutors who came before her were also to blame, “the fact that other Serbian top officials around Milosevic who were in power when Yugoslavia fell apart were not indicted is a huge failure for the prosecution, and Carla Del Ponte is certainly partly responsible for that”.

And the criticism does not stop there. Tactics employed against Milosevic by Del Ponte’s team of prosecutors were questionable too, according to Michael Karnavas, an American lawyer who is president of the Association of Defence Counsel at the ICTY.

“Milosevic was initially indicted for Kosovo, but then the prosecutors wanted to turn this not just into a trial of one individual for crimes that he may have been responsible for, but rather into a process aimed at finding some sort of historical truth - who started the war and how it started. They put the blame on him for just about everything,” he said.

The result, Karnavas said, was “a mega-trial, which wasn’t tried very well from the prosecution side”.

“I think she turned this trial into a spectacle and that’s regrettable,” he concluded.

However, most observers concede that Del Ponte’s ability to keep the ICTY in the public eye has been impressive. She has kept up media pressure on the Balkans countries and worked closely with the European Union to ensure that these new states’ chances of accession to the bloc were tied to their willingness to cooperate with the ICTY.

This remorseless style has characterised all that she did, said Jovan Spaic, head of the Bureau for Relations with the Tribunal in Republika Srpska, the Serb-ruled entity of Bosnia.

“She was quite aggressive when she tried to acquire evidence for her teams in the countries that were not willing to cooperate with the tribunal. But that is a characteristic a prosecutor should have in certain situations,” he said.

Her persistent pressure on Serbia over the years to extradite war crimes suspects, especially General Mladic, has meant Del Ponte has never been popular there. She is perceived as a bully and earned the nickname “New Gestapo”.

However, her supporters and opponents alike agree that without this kind of pressure, it is unlikely Serbia would have become more cooperative with the tribunal to the extent that it has over the last few years.

Donia said that Del Ponte’s “single greatest achievement has been to keep the issue of the indicted [persons] at the centre of the international community’s attention”.

Even Karnavas agreed the chief prosecutor had found herself in an unenviable situation, having to negotiate with Balkan states to accommodate the tribunal.

During the last few years of her mandate, Del Ponte was widely criticised for allegedly striking a deal with Serbia to acquire archived minutes from meetings of the Serbian Supreme Defence Council, SDC, held in the early Nineties, so that they could be used in the prosecution case against Milosevic – but with the proviso that certain parts be kept confidential.

While her office has firmly denied these allegations, saying that “any claim that the prosecution is involved in hiding evidence is completely false,” the rumours persist nonetheless.

Donia said he believes Del Ponte failed to do enough to ensure confidentiality was lifted from these documents and to ensure that other documents critical to war crimes trials were handed over to prosecutors.

“I don’t think the public is at all aware of the importance of the fact that Serbia has withheld not only critical portions of the minutes of the SDC meetings, but, in general, the records of the Yugoslav People’s Army and the Ministry of Defence, that would tell us so much about what went on in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the Nineties,” he said

The chief prosecutor, he said, made a mistake by focusing too much on the extradition of fugitives, while putting the issue of the documents to one side.

During the last eight years, increasing numbers of war crimes trials have taken places in national courts in the Balkan states, and experts say that much of the credit for that is due to Del Ponte.

When the ICTY completes its work at the end of this decade, courts in the region will take over.

“Everything that has been achieved at a national level regarding war crimes trials has been achieved during Carla Del Ponte’s mandate,” said Natasa Kandic, director of the Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade.

“Without her persistence, I do not think there would be any organised international pressure on the former Yugoslav states to initiate prosecuting war crimes in their own courts.”

Vladimir Todoric, an advisor to Serbia’s vice-president, said it was too early to judge her legacy. Nevertheless, he agreed that it is thanks to Del Ponte that “the question of processing war crimes has remained at the very top of the list of political issues in all the countries of former Yugoslavia”.

“Whether we are willing to admit it or not, the countries in the region have improved their relations by slowly but steadily sending their worst war crimes suspects to the tribunal,” he said.

“By doing that, they paved the way for new generations to establish new cultural, economic and political connections between these countries.”

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