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Ten Years On: The Fight for Justice in the Balkans Continues

The U.N. Tribunal for War Crimes in the Former Yugoslavia marks its ten-year anniversary this week, but it's business as usual in The Hague as the trials of those accused of atrocities in the Balkan Wars continue.

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A decade after its inception, the war crimes tribunal is still dealing with the horror of the Balkan Wars.

On November 17, 1993, the United Nations Tribunal for War Crimes in the former Yugoslavia began its unenviable task of searching for and bringing to justice those people responsible for horrific acts during almost 15 years of conflict.

From its base in the Dutch capital of The Hague, the tribunal stretched its rule of law across Europe and with the help of United Nations and NATO troops on the ground in the war-torn Balkans; it started the largest search for war criminals the continent had seen since the fall of the Third Reich in Germany.

Ten years on, the tribunal is still the nerve center behind the Special Forces squads who continue to comb the Balkan hillsides and suburbs hunting for the ex-army officers and politicians who remain at large, men who are wanted for the worst war crimes in Europe in a generation. And, as if to emphasize the enormity of the task the tribunal was given ten years ago, The Hague is still the focus for cases involving those who have been apprehended.

Milosevic indicted on three counts

Slobodan Milosevic vor dem Internationalen Gerichtshof in Den Haag

Slobodan Milosevic.

The most famous of those who have been brought in to answer for their actions is a man who went by many titles -- President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Supreme Commander of the Yugoslav Army, President of the Supreme Defense Council -- but a man known to many only by the one name, a name synonymous with the catastrophic loss of life of thousands of people: Slobodan Milosevic.

The last time Milosevic visited The Hague as a free man was for a peace conference 10 years ago. He was president of Yugoslavia. The Yugoslav wars were just starting. And there was no United Nations war crimes tribunal.

When he returned in February 2002, after almost 13 years of unchallenged power, the 62-year-old ex-dictator was brought before the tribunal to face charges accumulated during a rule which had set his country on a course of conflict and violent disintegration.

Croatia 1991

Armee Panzer Truppen Militärtechnik Jugoslawien

The first of the three charges for which he currently stands trial arises from the 1991 conflict instigated by Milosevic in Croatia. After the republic declared independence from Milosevic’s Yugoslavia, the Serb minority in Croatia looked to their ethnic leader for support, fearing for their existence. Milosevic’s response was to send in the Yugoslav People's Army to fight for a country for the Serbs, over-running Croatian forces by the end of the year. Up to 20,000 people were killed, and 400,000 people made homeless during the war.

The United Nations took a very dim view of the conflict and imposed economic sanctions on Yugoslavia. Also, U.N. observers began compiling reports of Milosevic’s brutality from survivors and refugees, which would eventually form the basis of the charges brought against him in reference to Croatia.

Eight years after it had been set up, the tribunal brought the first indictment against Milosevic for crimes in Croatia. He was charged on the basis of “individual criminal responsibility and superior criminal responsibility with grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, Violations of the laws or customs of war and Crimes against humanity.”

Bosnia 1992

Despite international outrage and the U.N. sanctions at the end of the Croatian War, Milosevic trail of destruction was by no means finished. After Bosnia’s declaration of independence by referendum in April 1992, violence broke out across yet another former republic.

Again Milosevic chose to defend the Serbs living in Bosnia from what he called "Islamic fundamentalism" by unleashing three years of war, the bloodiest in Europe since World War II, and effectively dissolving what was left of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The tribunal held a hearing on the extent of atrocities carried out in Bosnia in the second indictment brought before the court in November 2001. And, as well as duplicating charges to those brought in reference to Croatia, Milosevic was accused of genocide, principally based on the Bosnian Serb assault on the tiny Muslim village of Srebrenica.

Radovan Karadzic

Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.

The International Red Cross says about 7,000 Muslim men and boys remain unaccounted for after soldiers under the command of Milosevic-backed Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic (picture) and his military chief, Radko Mladic, swept through the village.

Kosovo 1999

After losing Bosnia and Croatia, and with the republic in tatters, Milosevic then turned to Kosovo in 1999. This time, the West had had enough and NATO launched an air campaign, plunging the continent into conflict for the first time in over 50 years.

After 74 days of bombing, Milosevic capitulated. In the post-war void, United Nations observers swarmed over the country, setting up on-site investigations. The evidence gathered went towards the final indictment brought against the former dictator -- a third charge for crimes against humanity.

Ex-Dictator denies court's legality

Since his arrest in April 2000, Milosevic has appeared sporadically in The Hague’s courtroom due to continuing illness. On the occasions he has appeared, he has defended himself and has issued three “not guilty” pleas to the charges brought against him for crimes in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo.
Milosevic has denied the legality of the court on many occasions, saying on one appearance: “I consider this trial to be a false trial and these accusations to be false accusations. They are illegal!”

Carla del Ponte Chefanklägerin des UN-Tribunals, Völkermord in Bosnien

U.N. war crimes prosecutor Carla del Ponte stands during statements, after meeting with Yugoslav Justice Minister Savo Markovic, in Belgrade, Thursday, April 18, 2002. Del Ponte arrived to Belgrade to press anew for the extradition of war crimes suspects, including top fugitives accused of genocide in the Bosnian war.

As the tribunal commemorates its ten year anniversary, Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte (picture) continues to clash with the ex-president and his fellow detainees as she pushes for the maximum sentence allowed -- life imprisonment. It is a slow process to hear all the evidence and instigate the trials of the accused; a process that will undoubtedly continue for many months to come.

Long, slow process to justice

To date, 38 indicted war criminals are currently in the detention unit in The Hague. Three of the indicted have been provisionally released. The judges have so far reached 19 guilty verdicts and ordered two acquittals.

As the search continues for suspects and justice, it is quite possible that the United Nations Tribunal for War Crimes will mark its 20th anniversary with alleged Serbian war criminals sitting in the cells below it.

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