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Clamor for justice: Yugoslav court leaves global legacy

BELGRADE- When a court on the Dutch North Sea coast issues its final verdict this week, it will signal the end of an experiment that has reverberated around the world, from the killing fields of Rwanda to the CIA’s secret cells in Europe.


A mural of former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic is seen on a building in Gacko, Bosnia and Herzegovina November 8, 2017.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), set up by the United Nations in 1993, marked the biggest leap in the field of international criminal law since the Allies tried the Nazis in Nuremberg.

Created in answer to the worst war crimes in Europe since World War Two, it set a precedent of accountability that has since put the Khmer Rouge and Liberia’s Charles Taylor in the dock and paved the way for a court with global ambition.

Almost 25 years later, its legacy is under threat.

The International Criminal Court (ICC), opened in 2002, is undermined by renewed West-Russia rivalry, stone-walling and revolt in Africa, barrel bombs in Syria and a boycott by three of five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

Supporters of the Yugoslav tribunal say it will remain a beacon inspiring a growing demand for justice and creativeness in delivering it – from ad hoc tribunals in Africa to the conviction in one country of a dictator from another and that of a Syrian in Sweden after a post on Facebook.

The glass is either half full or half empty, said Alex Whiting, professor of practice at Harvard Law School.

“You can say we haven’t come far enough and the new institutions, particularly the ICC, have not replicated the success of the ICTY, but you can just as easily say it’s remarkable how far we’ve come in just 25 years,” he said.

“The ICTY is the North Star.”


The Yugoslav tribunal owes a debt to history, born as it was between the end of the Cold War and the 9/11 attacks on the United States, when Russia was weak and the West was united in collective action.

For decades before, conflicts from Vietnam to Algeria, Afghanistan to Sri Lanka escaped major judicial scrutiny.

Backed by the arrest-power of Western peacekeepers and the readiness of the European Union to condition integration with Yugoslavia’s successor states on their cooperation, the tribunal issued 161 indictments and secured 83 convictions.

Wednesday’s verdict in the trial of Bosnian Serb wartime commander Ratko Mladic will be its last, bar appeals.

The Yugoslav court was the first to indict a sitting head of state in Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic, recognized sexual violence as a crime of war and advanced the definition of genocide.

With the U.N. tribunal for Rwanda, it assembled the hybrid case law used by tribunals in Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Lebanon and ultimately the ICC.

Its 2.5 million pages of transcripts offer a forensic and often harrowing account of a state’s dissolution that dispels the fog of wartime propaganda. More than 4,500 witnesses took the stand.

“I committed myself to speak on behalf of those who did not survive,” said Nusreta Sivac, a former judge in Bosnia who testified to her rape by Bosnian Serb captors. “The tribunal rulings will write history.”

Detractors say the court was slow, expensive and damaged by a number of high-profile acquittals. Milosevic died in 2006 while still on trial, while some cases were plagued by witness intimidation. The tribunal was supposed to help with reconciliation, but revisionism is rife and convicted war criminals often feted as heroes.

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