Accessibility links

Yugoslavia: At 10 Years, War Crimes Tribunal Coming Of Age

  • Don Hill

Ten years -- and nearly $600 million after it began -- the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has convicted 39 people of various crimes and taken more than 50 others into custody. A spokesman for the court tells RFE/RL that the tribunal's most important victory has been its growing acceptance by formerly recalcitrant political leaders in the former Yugoslavia itself.

Prague, 6 August 2003 (RFE/RL) -- As mayor of Prijedor in northwest Bosnia during the 1992-95 Bosnian war, Milomir Stakic presided over more than 1,500 deaths and 20,000 deportations of Muslims and Croats.

He organized detention camps where Serbian overseers killed, tortured, raped, and starved non-Serbs.

And last week, the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague (ICTY) sentenced him for his crimes to life imprisonment with possibility of parole after 20 years.

The sentence was the first life sentence that the ICTY's judges have handed down. Survivors of the camps and international watchdogs praised it. The court's longest previous sentence -- 46 years in jail -- went to former Bosnian Serb commander Radislav Krstic for culpability in the slaughter of 7,000 to 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995.

The UN Security Council established the ICTY in May 1993, in the court's own language, "to bring to justice [those] responsible" for genocide and other crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia after 1991.

Much of the populace and many of the political leaders in the affected countries actively opposed the court at the time. The tribunal got a slow start, beginning with trials of low-ranking prison camp guards. The first conviction was of Bosnian Serb Dusko Tadic in 1997 for 11 counts of persecution and beatings in Bosnian prison camps.

Since then, however, the trials and convictions have begun to roll in and mount up. The court has convicted 39 perpetrators to date.

ICTY spokesman Jim Landale says the tribunal's greatest accomplishment is its growing acceptance in the regions where the crimes took place: "We have definitely seen an increased awareness of what the tribunal is trying to do and through that an increased support for its work, support that translates into the very necessary cooperation from the various authorities on the ground. Which again makes the work of the tribunal that much easier, and that much easier to complete its mandate."

Earlier this summer on 13 June, Serbian authorities arrested Veselin Sljivancanin, indicted by the tribunal in 1995 for possible culpability in the 1991 massacre of more than 200 Croats in the Danube River town of Vukovar in eastern Croatia. Shielded as a national hero by many in Serbia and Montenegro, Sljivancanin had eluded capture since.

Remarks by Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Zivkovic at the time showed how attitudes in the region had changed: "[We have acted] in a way that The Hague tribunal and the international community and Serbia are satisfied with. Everything that has happened in the last few months, or since 5 October 2000 [when Serbs ousted Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic] has been done not only because of pressure from the international community, but more importantly [because of] the orientation of the democratic authorities in Serbia. We can only compensate for the fact that we are 10 or 60 years behind if we do things seriously."

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, himself, has become the court's most celebrated defendant. Serbian authorities turned him over to the tribunal soon after his ouster as Yugoslav president. The ICTY began his trial in February of last year and already has sat for 230 days. It recessed last month and is to reconvene at the end of this month. The prosecution case is expected to take the rest of this year, and then it is the defense's turn.

He stands charged with 66 counts of genocide and war crimes and crimes against humanity for his part in the three major wars that devastated Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

And his case spotlights some of the most difficult issues the court has to deal with -- among them, command responsibility and the nature of genocide.

Genocide is the systematic, planned annihilation of an ethnic or political group. The court has ruled that widespread murders and deportations are insufficient to prove genocide, that the prosecution must also show intent. Although Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte says she believes she can make a genocide charge stick in the Milosevic case, genocide has been hard to establish even in horrendous cases.

The court acquitted former Prijedor mayor Milomir Stakic of genocide, for example, even as it sentenced him for more than 1000 murders. The ICTY has acquitted three people of genocide charges. It has convicted only one, Krstic, for his role at Srebrenica. Krstic is appealing.

As to command responsibility: none of the indictments accuses Milosevic of participating personally in the murders and abuses with which he is charged. The indictments say instead that he directed or knowingly allowed his subordinates to commit those atrocities.

The ICTY has grown in credibility and stature as successful prosecutions have piled up. In its early years, however, critics complained that it stood icily aloof from the needs of the Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian, and Albanian victims of the Balkan war crimes it dealt with. ICTY spokesman Jim Landale agrees that the criticism was well founded.

"I think firstly it's fair to say that there was some justified criticism at the outset of the tribunal's work that -- set many hundreds of kilometers away from the crime scenes and the populations that it was trying to serve -- it was not doing enough to inform the populations of the former Yugoslavia exactly what its work was about and what it was trying to achieve," Landale says.

In 1999, the ICTY began an outreach program to inform the people of the former Yugoslavia about its work. It appointed outreach directors in Zagreb, Sarajevo, Belgrade, and Pristina. It provided translations of court documents in the local languages. It brought groups of lawyers, judges, journalists, and community leaders to The Hague to see actual trials in progress and to attend seminars. It produced three-day seminars in the region.

Landale says it also harnessed modern communication technology: "Another very important part of the outreach program's work has been to set up a comprehensive Internet site in Bosnian, Serbian, Croatian, and Albanian so that people in the region who have access to the Internet can log on and can read all of the documentation that has been produced by the tribunal. But not only that, it can follow the trials live on the Internet."

Landale says the outreach has provided a double reward. It responded to the criticism that it was out of touch with the people most involved. And it generated more cooperation:

"I think now that people have a much better understanding of how the tribunal works and the sorts of checks and balances that are worked into the system to make sure that the rights of the accused are always respected and upheld, then that of course has given the people the confidence to put their trust in the court. And we've seen that in terms of voluntary surrenders and in terms of guilty pleas," Landale says.

Since the Krstic genocide conviction, two officers who served under Krstic at Srebrenica have agreed to plead guilty and to testify against their former commanders.

In another high-profile case, former Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic voluntarily surrendered to the court and pleaded guilty to crimes against humanity for her actions during the Bosnian war from 1992 to 1995. Taking into account her professed remorse, the court sentenced her in January to serve 11 years in prison.

The sharpest remaining thorn in the side of the ICTY is the continued freedom of Serbian former army officers Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the two men that the tribunal charges were primarily responsible for genocide, torture, and deportation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Judge Theodore Meron said at the weekend that their continued freedom is "a disgrace."

"The tribunal will not consider its work done until Karadzic and Mladic are brought to justice," Meron said.