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

Local Trials Off to a Rocky Start

Hopes that Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia can try war crimes suspects seem misplaced.
By Stacy Sullivan

In an effort to wind down war crimes proceedings and meet the United Nations Security Council's deadline to close the tribunal by 2008, The Hague has been encouraging the successor states of Yugoslavia to initiate their own trials.


The idea is to try high-level suspects and those accused of the worst crimes in The Hague, but lower-level indictees - even some who are already in tribunal custody - will be tried in local courts.


Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, and Serbia and Montenegro have all embraced the idea, and initiated efforts to create special legal mechanism for trying war crimes cases.


The Serbian parliament voted earlier this month to establish a special state prosecutor's office and set up a unit within the interior ministry to investigate war crimes, as well as create a detention unit for suspects.


While a Croatian draft law on the creation of a war crimes court is still to be voted on in parliament, political analysts say the decision is all but certain and such an institution could even be operational by the end of the year.


Bosnia has been trying war crimes suspects for years, under the "Rules of the Road" - an agreement brokered by former United States envoy Richard Holbrooke which called on local authorities to seek prior authorisation from The Hague before initiating proceedings.


With new governments in power in all three countries, it was generally believed that Sarajevo, Belgrade and Zagreb could look into their past without bias and confront the crimes committed in the names of their people.


Tribunal chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte and the new tribunal president, Judge Theodor Meron, have praised these efforts, describing them as essential for the sake of reconciliation.


But will Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia really be able to mete out justice for the worst crimes committed in Europe since the Second World War on their own?


We asked our team of correspondents and other contributors from the region to examine the trials currently under way. If these early efforts are any indication of how the local war crimes courts will work, the future of meting out justice in Yugoslavia's successor states looks bleak.


In Serbia and Montenegro, authorities have heard only four trials - two completed and two still under way. As Natasa Kandic writes, none of these have implicated the Serbian leadership, and all have been plagued by irregularities.


In Croatia, the much-anticipated trial of Croatian soldiers accused of killing some 18 Serb civilians in the village of Paulin Dvor in 1991 began in June, based on evidence provided to the Zagreb authorities by Del Ponte. But as Drago Hedl reports from Osijek, the trial has degenerated into a farce.


And finally, Bosnia. Federation authorities are investigating several Bosnian Serb officials from Doboj for the mass execution of some 50 civilians in the town, but at least one of the suspects has slipped across the border into Serbia in spite of a warrant having been issued for his arrest. Moreover, although the government received the go-ahead to investigate the case from The Hague, the suspects' lawyers are challenging the court's jurisdiction over the case.


Stacy Sullivan is IWPR project manager in The Hague.