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Trailblazing Yugoslav War Crimes Court Nears End Of The Road

Radovan Karadzic appears at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague in 2009, where he was sentenced to 40 years in prison in 2016.

By the numbers, the International Criminal Tribunal on Yugoslavia (ICTY) can boast of many successes over the more than two decades it has been prosecuting war crimes resulting from the breakup of Yugoslavia.

But while the tribunal blazed a trail of firsts, shortcomings such as failing to prevent the early release of those found guilty of war crimes have planted lingering doubts over its success in bringing justice and reconciliation to a region where ethnic tensions continue to simmer.

Before wrapping up its activities as planned at the end of the year, the court will hear its last major case on November 22, with a verdict expected to be handed down to Ratko Mladic.

Once dubbed "the Butcher of Bosnia," the 75-year-old former Bosnian-Serb general is being tried on 11 charges, including two of genocide, as well as war crimes and crimes against humanity for his role in the bloody 1992-95 conflict that tore the former Yugoslavia apart.

"The tribunal's treatment of the Bosnian War shows that international tribunals are more about interpreting history than dispensing justice," says Luke Gittos, a criminal lawyer and law editor at Spiked Online.

WATCH: Hague Prosecutor Warns On Pending Cases Ahead Of Mladic Verdict

Hague Prosecutor Warns On Pending Cases Ahead Of Mladic Verdict
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Failings Of The Court

In 1993 the United Nations created the international war crimes court, the first since the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals were created after World War II.

Since then it has heard some 5,000 witnesses testify about crimes committed during the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia, filing indictments against 161 people, many of whom were high-ranking state officials.

Being a pioneer in the legal world, The Hague-based court had the difficult task of harmonizing differing legal traditions, dealing with the linguistic logistics posed by the languages of the countries that emerged from the conflict, and complex cases that needed meticulous gathering of mountains of evidence.

Like many international tribunals, it also lacked police powers and had to rely on foreign governments to aid its operations.

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic appears before the tribunal in The Hague in 2004.
Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic appears before the tribunal in The Hague in 2004.

Refik Hodzic, a former spokesman for the tribunal, has said the ICTY could have had more of an impact on society in the region; for example, by providing facts for public debate that could have better fostered discussion in the region of what happened during the war and helped avert allegations of judicial bias.

"The failing of the tribunal...was not to embrace, not to recognize its role as a transitional justice mechanism, as a mechanism that is in the service of the social recovery of the society, so that it can in real time recognize the destructiveness of this discourse that was coming from the political circles," he told in an interview earlier this year.

One decision the court has been sharply criticized over is its 2016 acquittal of Serbian nationalist Vojislav Seselj on charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Seselj was accused of inciting ethnic hatred and murder with his speeches during the conflicts that broke federal Yugoslavia into seven successor states and killed 130,000 people.

Testimony showed Seselj once gave a speech to Serbian troops where he told them that "not a single Ustasha must leave Vukovar [an eastern Croatian city on the Danube River border with Serbia] alive." Ustasha refers to the pro-Nazi wartime regime in Croatia.

Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti, who headed a three-judge panel at the court that voted 2-1 in favor of acquittal, said that speeches such as the one Seselj made were done "in a context of conflict and were meant to boost the morale of the troops of his camp, rather than calling upon them to spare no one."

But the dissenting judge, Flavia Lattanzi, wrote a scathing response in the judgement accusing Seselj and his allies of intimidating witnesses and that, with the verdict, the majority judges had set "aside all the rules of international humanitarian law."

Serbian Radical Party leader and presidential candidate Vojislav Seselj speaks during a rally in Belgrade in March.
Serbian Radical Party leader and presidential candidate Vojislav Seselj speaks during a rally in Belgrade in March.

'Singling Out Serbs'

Within the region, the reaction was just as sharp against a court many thought had failed in its quest for justice.

In Serbia, animosity toward the ICTY continues even as it winds down its operations.

Many Serbs have compared the tribunal to a witch-hunt against Serbia, pointing to the fact that about 80 percent of the total indictments came against Serbs.

On November 1, Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic continued the rhetoric in sharply critical comments regarding the court ahead of a meeting with ICTY President Carmel Agius.

Brnabic, echoing comments from other senior Serbian officials, said the tribunal had failed to fulfill its purpose and done nothing to aid in reconciliation. "I think that [the court] contributed to heightened tensions in the region. No one can say that The Hague tribunal was objective to all the sides which participated in the conflict of the 1990s," she told reporters in Belgrade.

"Serbia absolutely had it the worst when it comes to the collective number of years of imprisonment of all those held accountable in The Hague, but also in the number of people who died while on trial in The Hague, which is unconscionable."

From Criminal To Hero

Top officials at the ICTY, including Agius and Serge Brammertz, who took over as chief prosecutor in 2008, have noted some of the court's shortcomings.

Victims say they have lost faith in the court because of the early release of some convicted officials and their subsequent reintegration into state institutions.

One flashpoint pertaining to the issue of war criminals being turned into role models was a recent report that General Vladimir Lazarevic, the former commander of the Pristina Corps of the Yugoslav Army, would join the teaching staff at Serbia's state military academy.

In 2009, he was convicted at The Hague tribunal of the forced deportation of more than 700,000 ethnic Albanians during the 1989-99 Kosovo War. Last month the 68-year-old was released from jail and immediately tasked with lecturing to the next generation of Serbian soldiers.

Brammertz says he is "quite shocked" and finds it "disgraceful" that some convicted war criminals are being turned into war heroes.

"It is simply inconceivable to me that those responsible for implementing ethnic-cleansing campaigns can be seen as heroes. What is heroic about killing civilians, burning places of worship, imprisoning innocents, and forcing hundreds of thousands to flee their homes?" he told an ICTY legacy conference in June.

WATCH: For Srebrenica Mother, Mladic Verdict Promises Little Sense Of Justice

For Srebrenica Mother, Mladic Verdict Promises Little Sense Of Justice
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'A Big Job'

ICTY officials are also quick to point out that the tribunal has tirelessly pursued justice in the face of such a daunting mandate.

They note that the ICTY will go down in history as the first court to charge an acting head of state with genocide and other crimes, even though former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic died in 2006 before the end of his trial.

"Many people blame us for not accusing all the criminals, but it was not our task at all. Our role was to accuse the most responsible ones and we have done that. Our term of office was short. I think a big job has been done within the limited time frame," Agius said.

"In my view, the principal achievement of the tribunal, and its most important legacy, is its ground-breaking role in the fight against impunity and the successful fulfillment of its mandate to prosecute those who bear the greatest responsibility for the horrific crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia during the conflicts of the 1990s," Agius added.

After Mladic the ICTY next week will make its ruling on the appeals of former Bosnian Croat leader Jadranko Prlic and five other Bosnian Croats.

Prlic, now 57, was sentenced to 25 years in prison on charges of murdering and deporting Muslims during the war.

After that, it will close its doors.

The Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals will take over the remaining cases, along with domestic courts, particularly the Bosnian state court, according to Agius.

"Our legacy will depend on how those institutions will continue working. We provided a big help to establishing the Bosnian state court; we gave international judges [the opportunity] to work at that court until someone decided they were no longer needed," he said. "In my opinion, that was a big mistake."