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Justice And Therapy In Yugoslav War-Crimes Trials

I recently attended a London presentation of the film “Storm,” which centers on the unlikely theme of a war-crimes trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Directed by Hans-Christian Schmid, “Storm” stars Kerry Fox as a feisty, but pedantic ICTY prosecutor and Anamaria Marinca as a key Bosniak victim of wartime rape in 1990s Bosnia-Herzegovina. (The trailer for the film is available here)

In the film, the case against a Bosnian Serb military officer wobbles when a key Bosniak witness is shown to have lied. The prosecutor struggles to keep the case alive and finds a new, deeper horror: a hotel where systematic rapes of Bosniak women prisoners by Bosnian Serbs were carried out. But how to bring to the courtroom credible evidence of what happened? Will a victim who survived the ordeal testify so many years later?

The film is being marketed as a “thriller.” While it is not scary or even dramatic, the Bosnian scenes convey bleak black menace, all the more effective for being understated.

The plot turns on ICTY procedural maneuvers. The court is under pressure to end overly long trials. A senior EU official (the prosecutor’s lover) leads the intrigue aimed at ending the trial (in effect, abandoning justice in general and Bosnia’s war-crimes victims in particular) for the sake of achieving the cooperation of Republika Srpska (the ethnic Sebian entity of the Bosnian federation) in expediting Bosnia’s progress toward EU membership.

As a dramatic device this gives the viewer a subtle and interesting (if pessimistic) movie experience. The court scenes and technical insights bring out some legal and procedural themes not obvious to the general public.

The film culminates with a murky plea-bargain deal to end the proceedings without the new evidence being presented. The accused Serb is sentenced only to time served. The prosecutor and Bosniak woman victim alike are betrayed, on several painful levels simultaneously.

Trail-blazing Legal Work

After the screening I joined a panel chaired by a colleague from Amnesty International. Two women panelists familiar with the difficulties faced by women victims of rape and other abuses in Bosnia (on all sides) focused on what more needed to be done to support women war-crimes victims.

They argued that nearly 15 years after the Bosnia conflict ended many victims lacked even simple recognition for what had happened to them, let alone a sense that justice might be done. The Yugoslavia conflicts had led to trail-blazing legal and policy work for victims, but much more was still needed.

I raised policy and procedural questions arising from war-crimes trials in the former Yugoslavia. I pointed to the startling cost of the ICTY -- now approaching $2 billion since it was set up. It’s an expensive way to indict only 161 people.

I added that as an account of the way things worked in real life, the film was unconvincing. The real-life problem was not that the EU did dirty deals of the sort shown in the film; rather that it was unable to do any deals. As the recent arrest of Bosniak leader Ejup Ganic in London on a Serbian arrest warrant showed, moving war-crimes trials to countries in the region opened the way to apparent political monkey business.

A distinguished lawyer in the audience pointed out that the main victim in the film was justice, noting there had been improper (and unrealistic) collusion between the prosecutors and judges.

Another woman in the audience, also from Amnesty, remonstrated with what she saw as my “dismaying” attitude toward war-crimes trials in Serbia and elsewhere, which she said had done fine work. London had been right to respond to the request from Belgrade to arrest Ganic on war-crimes charges because Belgrade’s warrants issued against senior Kosovar leaders had been ignored by other European partners.

Justice Or Therapy?

It was a fascinating evening. Two powerful lines from the film stand out:

"What are these trials for?" and "This [the ICTY] is not therapy..."

They prompt some wider thoughts.

The ICTY focuses only on individuals charged with specific war crimes or crimes against humanity. It is not there to give victims of such crimes special satisfaction (“therapy”). The victims may well be disappointed at the elaborate and expensive efforts to ensure that people accused by ICTY get a fair trial. And at the sheer cost of the whole business.

Since the ICTY was set up in 1993, the cost has soared beyond anything the UN (and the nations who foot the ICTY bill) expected.

The ICTY’s early years were cheap because there were few defendants. But as efforts intensified to bring ICTY indictees to justice, the court started to get expensive, jumping from $25 million per year in 1995 to $96 million in 2001, then steadily up and up toward the $150 million or so for 2010.

The ICTY now costs $3 million a week, including legal fees, registry work, translation work, witness protection, judges, and the rest. Accused persons (or, rather, their lawyers) get legal aid. A lot of people are getting rich on tax-free payments and allowances, poring over the misery of impoverished Yugoslavs.

And why is ICTY being run like this? To distinguish its trials from those held after World War II. Then, the Allies handed out fast, rough justice to Nazi and Japanese war-crimes suspects. Dozens of trials were carried out at top speed, leading to scores of executions. The intensity of the process prompted sharp criticisms from senior jurists and politicians back home.

Plus the Allied war-crimes process was incomplete. Soviet war crimes could not be examined (notably the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the Katyn massacres personally ordered by the top Soviet leadership). The consequences remain with us 70 years later. Russian Prime Minister Putin and Polish Prime Minister Tusk have been together this week at the site of the Katyn massacre, trying to find a way to come to terms with that grisly history.

The Law Meets Politics

The ICTY was designed to be different, run to the highest standards of procedural and substantive fairness. Decades from now people could agree that, yes, the process for all its difficulties was legitimate and just. This gives far greater scope to defendants. Trials of the top political defendants (Milosevic, Seselj, and, now, Karadzic) have seemed close to slipping into farce.

The ICTY is not the whole story. Special courts for “lesser” war crimes have been set up in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia. These important trials are little acknowledged elsewhere in Europe. As British ambassador in Belgrade, I hosted a Kosovo family in Belgrade to give evidence in one of the first trials, involving alleged war crimes by Serbs in Kosovo. They said they had been treated honorably by the Serbian authorities.

The core problem with these trials is that each ethnic community concerned likes to see a conviction of someone from another community who brutalized their fellow ethnic cousins. But they hate it when “their” court is expected to put on trial one of “their” people. They hate it even more when a court elsewhere in the region looks to go lightly on someone from “its” community. Why, cry Serbs, has the Bosnian legal system for nearly 20 years done next to nothing about the 1992 Dobrovoljacka Street killings?

The reality is that every community in the former Yugoslavia sees itself as a victim of something or other. And a central part of being a victim is that you never get justice. So local politicians who believe in pushing the war-crimes agenda face an uphill task -- where are the votes in doing so?

To make it even more difficult, the Serbian government is (as the Amnesty woman at the “Storm” screening rightly pointed out) undermined when other European countries won’t respect Belgrade’s warrants to arrest people indicted in Serbia on war-crimes charges. It makes no sense for the European Union to insist that the region run these trials to high international standards and then not respect local efforts to do that.

That said, Serbs and Bosniaks alike will all be suspecting that Belgrade's decision to press London for Ganic's extradition was in one way or the other politically motivated (see, for instance, tendentious state television reporting in Belgrade). The difference is only that most Serbs are quietly cheering, whereas most Bosniaks suspect more Karadzic/Milosevic-style scheming to delegitimize Bosniak resistance -- and Bosniaks as such.

Great crimes do deserve great punishment. Delivering that punishment in an effective and consistent way is far from easy. And, as “Storm” uncomfortably reminds us, far from the high politics and learned legal debates are thousands of victims of the former Yugoslavia’s various conflicts, lost in their grim memories and struggling to live on a fraction of what ICTY lawyers and officials earn.

Charles Crawford served as a British diplomat in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and subsequently as ambassador in Sarajevo, Belgrade, and Warsaw. He now writes about diplomatic issues at The views expressed in this commentary are his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.