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The legacy of the ICTY Tribunal in the Hague

Zoran Arbutina
November 29, 2017

The suicide death of Slobodan Praljak has overshadowed the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia's final verdict. The court has been heavily criticized, but that has not lessened its importance.

Slobodan Praljak takes poison on tv
Image: picture-alliance/AP/A. Emric

It was an unexpected end of the final day of judgement for the UN International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.

The Tribunal sentenced Slobodan Praljak to 20 years in prison on Wednesday, but the Bosnian Croat ex-General will not spend any time behind bars. After hearing his sentence, he drank poison from a small bottle that he had on hand and died shortly after in a nearby hospital.

"It is a tragedy that someone in such a situation has taken their own life. This is what we first and foremost must think about," said Wolfgang Schomburg, the first German judge at the ICTY in The Hague. The jurist pointed out that others in the past had threatened suicide, such as Vojislav Seselj, founder and chairman of the Serbian Radical Party.

Read more: Opinion: The overburdened Hague Tribunal

In addition to its verdict for Praljak, the Tribunal handed down imprisonment sentences of 10 to 25 years on Wednesday to Jadranko Prlic, Bruno Stojic, Milivoj Petkovic, Valentin Coric and Berislav Pusic for war-related crimes.

Now, after 25 years, the Tribunal will cease to exist, but its impact will remain.

'A quantum leap on the path to justice'

The ICTY came into existence on May 25, 1993, after the United Nations approved Resolution 827, which called for a body to examine and prosecute crimes committed during the Yugoslav wars.

"A dream suddenly came true," recalls Schomburg of the tribunal's founding. It was something utterly new in terms of international jurisdiction and humanitarian law, says Schomburg. "The court was supposed to demonstrate that no one was above the law, and that every person would have to answer for their actions, regardless of the position they may have held in politics, the military or any other segment of their country."

The international community's decision to convene an ad hoc court — for this one purpose — was "a quantum leap on the path to more justice," says Schomburg.

Now, almost a quarter century later, the ICTY has ended its work. Over the last 25 years some 161 people have been charged with crimes and 151 faced trial. The rest either died before they could be brought to justice or had their cases dropped. The court convicted 90 people in all, including powerful presidents, generals and intelligence services leaders, most of whom were given long prison sentences.

Wolfgang Schomburg
Wolfgang Schomburg was the first German judge of the TribunalImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Milosevic on trial

The most spectacular of those trials was no doubt that of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Arrested in 2001, his trial began in 2002. It was broadcast live across the entire former Yugoslavia and was followed closely by the public. A verdict was never handed down: Milosevic died in 2006 in the UN-administered Scheveningen prison for war criminals before his trial concluded.

Read more: Sebs still coming to terms with Milosevic

The ICTY convicted other high-ranking persons, however, such as Radovan Karadzic, the former leader of the Bosnian Serbs, and his head of military Ratko Mladic, known as the "Butcher of Bosnia." Both men were convicted of, among other crimes, having planned and carried out genocide in Srebrenica against Muslim Bosniaks. Schomburg considers the convictions as part of the Tribunal's greatest successes, showing the world that, "one can go after powerful people."

Milosevic in court
Milosevic died before his trial could come to an endImage: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb

Victims given a voice

Over the course of the years, the ICTY questioned more than 4,600 witness and collected more than 2.5 million documents. Belgrade publisher and human rights activist Nemanja Stjepanovic says that these instances are among the Tribunal's most important achievements. "We would never have been able to see so many police and military documents had it not been for the (ICTY) Tribunal. We also would not have been able to read so many recorded minutes from meetings held by political leaders, or hear so many eyewitness accounts from victims." The ICTY allowed many of those victims to address the court, giving them the chance to look perpetrators in the eye for the first time. "It provided an incredible opportunity for reconciliation, although it is not acted upon."

But the ICTY also made decisions that many found difficult to understand. The Croatian General Ante Gotovina, for example, was initially convicted and sentenced to 24 years in prison, only to be released upon appeal. Similarly, Serbian General Momcilo Perisic was given a 27-year sentence but later acquitted and released.   

Judge Wolfgang Schomburg says that he is one of those who cannot understand how such decisions could have been made: "For me as a jurist, the grounds for acquittals handed down by the appeals chamber, which were incidentally handed down almost simultaneously, are inexplicable." Serbian public opinion has often claimed that the decisions were the result of pressure applied to the court by the United States. The logic behind the suggestion is that the US wanted to avoid setting an international legal precedent of convicting high-ranking generals that might one day be used to convict decision makers in the US military.

Convict drinks poison in court

Neutral, or biased?

The work of the ICTY has been viewed critically by Serbians in particular. Their main accusation is that the Tribunal never operated on a neutral basis and was only interested in convicting Serbs. That sentiment is based on the fact that of the Tribunal's 161 cases, 109 were brought against Serbs. In all, Serbs were sentenced to some 1,200 years behind bars, and four defendants were given life sentences. Croatians found guilty by the Tribunal received roughly 300 years behind bars.

"That is a fact," says Stjepanovic. "But I do not accept the argument that this is because the rest of the world ist against Serbia and wants to harm the country. Serbia and various Serb-dominated regions outside the country participated in all of the wars that took place in the former Yugoslavia, and they committed the most crimes. That is also a fact."

In Croatia, too, convictions of fellow countrymen are seen as attacks on "Croat nationality" rather than a comprehensive and fundamental attempt to deal with the past. "Everyone declares that they condemn the crimes," says Stjepanovic. Yet the political and military elites are trying to keep the world from "shining a light on the role played by the political leadership. Because those crimes were not committed out of a sense of hatred, but rather as part of a political concept."

Nemanja Stjepanovic
Stjepanovic does not think that Serbs have been targeted unfairly by legal proceedings.Image: FHP

A controversial end

Now that the Hague Tribunal has ended its work, all unresolved cases will be handed over to another ad hoc criminal court, the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT). That court is charged with bringing ongoing cases for the former Yugoslavia and for Rwanda to an end. Schomburg says that he cannot see "why the existing courts were not incrementally downsized proportionate to the shrinking workload of the task at hand, and thus allowed to finish their work on their own."

Schomburg finds this unsettling. "From my point of view, I get the impression that the Tribunal is being prematurely shut down for political reasons."