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article imageYugoslav war crimes court helped end era of impunity

By Jo Biddle (AFP)     Nov 22, 2017 in World

Born from the fires engulfing the Balkans in the 1990s, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia closes next month having tried and judged dozens of those behind Europe's worst atrocities since World War II.

From helping to write the history of the bitter conflict, to putting war criminals around the globe on notice that they too could up in the dock, to setting international jurisprudence for such crimes as genocide, law experts say the tribunal leaves an impressive legacy.

It showed it was "possible to bring to justice the high-level figures responsible for the crimes committed in the Balkans conflict", said Diana Goff, an international lawyer and research fellow at the Clingendael Institute.

And "it provided an updated blue-print for how to create an international criminal tribunal in the post-Cold War era".

Alarmed by reports of mass killings, systematic rape and ethnic cleansing as inter-communal rivalries ripped Yugoslavia apart after the death of its iron-fisted ruler Tito, the international community decided something had to be done.

But absent political will for a military intervention, the UN Security Council in May 1993 made a gesture, adopting resolution 827 creating an international tribunal "to put an end to such crimes and ... to bring to justice the persons responsible".

The ICTY was the first war crimes court set up by UN and the first international tribunal established since the Nuremberg trials went after those behind the horrors of the Nazi regime.

- Low expectations -

It was also to provide a model for similar ad-hoc tribunals to prosecute those responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and atrocities in Sierre Leone.

But "expectations were not very high" at first, admitted the court's chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz in an interview ahead of Wednesday's guilty verdict and life sentence handed down to brutish former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic.

Sceptics said at the time there would be no indictments, no convictions and no sentences.

Although expectations were not high to begin with  the court indicted 161 people  all of whom faced ...
Although expectations were not high to begin with, the court indicted 161 people, all of whom faced some kind of justice, to set "a gold standard" for prosecuting and bring succour to relatives of victims notably of the Srebrenica massacre
Dimitar DILKOFF, AFP

Now, as the court prepares to close its doors on December 31 having indicted 161 people, all of whom faced some kind of justice, expert Goff said it had set "a gold standard" for prosecuting and defining such complex crimes as genocide.

It became the first international court ever to indict a sitting head of state, when in 1999 it unveiled an indictment against then Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic.

More than 4,000 witnesses have testified over the years, allowing their stories and their voices to be heard. And the tribunal leaves behind millions of pages of documents as a reference library for posterity.

"The main legacy is these trials in which hundreds have testified and presented their irrefutable record of the mass atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia, on frankly all sides," former US ambassador for war crimes issues, Stephen Rapp, told AFP.

"That's a legacy that will last forever."

- Reconciliation -

But criticism remains that the tribunal failed in its loftier ambitions -- to ensure reconciliation, amid warnings of a new rise in nationalism in the region.

"Virtually all parties to the conflict believe that they were targeted by the ICTY too much and their adversaries targeted too little," said Mark Kersten, a researcher into international criminal justice.

ICTY's Belgian chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz accepts any judicial process cannot achieve rec...
ICTY's Belgian chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz accepts any judicial process cannot achieve reconciliation which "has to come from within society"
Jan HENNOP, AFP/File

Brammertz acknowledges the criticism, but stressed "a judicial process in itself can never achieve reconciliation. Reconciliation has to come from within society".

Rapp, former chief prosecutor for the special court of Sierre Leone who tried ex-Liberian president Charles Taylor, agreed, saying demanding reconciliation from a court was "asking too much of justice".

But he insisted the ICTY had helped dissipate calls for vengeance.

"Part of the problem in the former Yugoslavia, for instance, was the absence of justice for crimes in World War II so the Serbs felt, 'the Croatians were fascists, they did horrible crimes against us and they never paid for that'," said Rapp.

So could the ICTY be a model for trying those behind crimes in Syria or in Myanmar?

"The international community has decided ... there is going to be criminal accountability for people in the world who do the kinds of things that we're investigating," said David Schwendiman, prosecutor for a specialist court for Kosovo.

But he said the age of the expensive -- the ICTY cost about $200 million a year -- lawyer-heavy courts may be over, in favour of hybrid tribunals, using domestic law and international judges for example.

While it is a "given now" that there will be accountability for war crimes, "how that's done is a big question", said Schwendiman.

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