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

Tribunal Urged to Continue Beyond 2010

Experts say local courts not robust enough to try defendants as high-profile as Karadzic and Mladic.
By Denis Dzidic

Top legal experts have pressed the international court trying war crimes in the former Yugoslavia not to close as planned in 2010, saying it needs more time to finish its job.

Under the completion strategy of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY, it must finish all trials by 2009 and all appeals by 2010. Participants at a conference in the Bosnian city of Tuzla on September 27-30 agreed that would not give it enough time to finish its work.

Although some cases have already been passed onto local courts, experts said local institutions would not be robust enough to try defendants as high-profile as Radovan Karadžić or Ratko Mladić, who are accused of orchestrating war crimes in Bosnia, including during the siege of Sarajevo and the massacre of Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica. They are both still on the run.

“It is clear that local or regional courts are not ready for these big cases. What will happen when the time comes for Mladić or Karadžić to be prosecuted,” asked Slavko Peričević, a member of the Board of the Foundation for Truth, Justice and Reconciliation.

The conference, organised by the aforementioned foundation, gathered together experts from the ex-Yugoslav countries as well as from Europe and the United States.

Apart from agreeing on the need for the ICTY to continue its work, they also backed a motion calling for a central library of the tribunal’s documents to be created in one of the countries in the region to ensure they would be accessible.

“This is a very important petition. That documentation is our history, it needs to be made public for our researchers and historians, and if it’s stored in New York, it will be too far,” explained Sinan Alić, the president of the organising foundation.

But the participants failed to reach agreement on a motion that the ICTY be replaced with a supranational court in one of the Balkan cities when it ceases its work in 2010.

Several participants rejected this idea, most notably representatives of the ICTY, stating that it would be almost impossible to create, and that it would take several years to agree on norms, rules, regulations, judges or establishing whom the court would answer to.

Representatives of regional courts said meanwhile that it would not be possible to set up a new court which would be above local institutions.

In the end, the participants agreed to forward the two agreed motions to the presidents of Serbia, Montenegro, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the UN Security Council and the European Council.

Joanna Korner, a former senior trial attorney at the ICTY, said that even if the tribunal is wound up, it had set a number of useful precedents for local courts to use in prosecuting war crimes cases. She said local courts were moving in the right direction, if not quite ready to take on the full responsibility of the ICTY.

“I think it takes time to adapt to a new system of trials and the complexity of some cases is quite advanced. So it will take time,” she said.

“These conferences are important because it is important to consider, at an early stage, the effect of the Hague judgments; although it is still too early to say what they will be, the ICTY has made crucial contributions in international law.”

But many of the local delegates thought the court had not tried hard enough to assist in the process of reconciliation, since it had failed to assign guilt for some of the most heinous crimes committed after 1991. During the violent collapse of Yugoslavia, almost all sides were accused of war crimes, including massacres of civilians.

“The tribunal has let us down, and has not helped people face the past, because it had not proved beyond reasonable doubt the responsibility of all those responsible for war crimes,” Staša Zajević, from the Women for peace NGO in Belgrade, told IWPR.

“The biggest historical task set before the ICTY was to find that genocide was committed by Serbia in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and it has failed to do so,” said Bećir Macić from the Institute for Crime Research in Sarajevo.

But Richard Wilson, of the University of Connecticut, defended the ICTY. He said it had helped lay out the narrative of the war, which will help local residents understand their own history. He cited the case of Bosnian Serb Dušan Tadić, which starts with 60 pages of background history. He blamed the lack of understanding of the ICTY on insufficient funding for publicity programmes.

“The ICTY public outreach is understaffed and under funded, it should receive more funds and staff in order to educate people about verdicts and facts found,” he said.

Denis Džidić is an IWPR reporter in Sarajevo.

Also see Story Behind the Story, published 22 Nov 07, TU Issue 526.

The Story Behind the Story gives an insight into the work that goes into IWPR articles and the challenges faced by our trainees at every stage of the editorial process.

This feature allows our journalists to explain where they get the inspiration for their articles, why the subjects matter to them, and how they personally have felt affected by the often controversial issues they explore.

It also shows the difficulties writers can face as they try to get to the heart of a story.