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

Tribunal President Backs Balkan Courts

Hague set on devolving prosecutions to Bosnian and other courts in the region.
By Chris Stephen

Hague tribunal president Theodor Meron has underlined the key role that regional war crimes chambers will play in former Yugoslavia.


In a speech at Leiden University's campus in The Hague on October 22, Judge Meron said the Bosnian war crimes chamber now being set up was "one of the essential projects" which he was working on.


"I look forward to the establishment of this war crimes capability, also in Belgrade and Zagreb, provided they meet standards of due process and human rights," he said.


Judge Meron's comments underline the importance the Hague tribunal attaches to the evolving war crimes processes in the Balkans.


The tribunal is expected to close in 2010, and responsibility for future war crimes justice will rest on the courts of former Yugoslavia itself.


In any case, The Hague will be able to try only a fraction of those suspected of war crimes - with the rest being dealt with by regional courts.


"Clearly the [tribunal] will only be able to take on a small fraction of cases of those who have committed war crimes in the former Yugoslavia," he said.


One problem for Balkan war crimes courts is the expense of such proceedings. The Hague has found that cases often last much longer than conventional trials, with high bills for witnesses and lawyers that Balkan courts, with their limited budgets, may struggle to meet.


Progress is being made, however, with the setting-up of a Bosnian war crimes chamber due to have international judges as supervisors. Serbia is also due to begin its own war crimes trial system.


But Judge Meron also warned that the Hague tribunal should not close until all suspects have been brought to justice.


"A strict application of the target date for completion strategy must not, I repeat, must not, result in impunity," he said.


This anxiety has grown in recent months, with the continued refusal of Croatia and Serbia to hand over key suspects, and the inability of NATO to locate former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic.


He said the tribunal was hindered because it was operating "without assistance of a police force, without full co-operation of governments".


But he also outlined the tribunal's successes. A total of 28 trials are underway involving 44 defendants, with another 31 in the pre-trial stages. He also welcomed the 16 guilty pleas recently made by defendants.


Judge Meron said he thought the court was doing its part not just to jail offenders, but to provide victims with comfort and a feeling that justice was being done. "I think that the area is gradually moving towards normality," he said.


And while he said he was concerned at the length of time some defendants must wait before their trials begin, he pointed out that the Hague's detention centre met the "highest possible marks as a model place of detention".


Judge Meron told one questioner that he thought local war crimes trials in the Balkans would be more important in dispensing justice than South Africa-style truth commissions.


He said that with the "hatred and antagonism in the former Yugoslavia, it is difficult to think that a truth commission would be effective".


Chris Stephen is IWPR's project manager in The Hague.