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A deadly exit and a glimmer of hope

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Zoran Arbutina
November 29, 2017

It couldn't have been more dramatic. The convicted war criminal drinks poison in the middle of the court room, dying a short time later. Even The Hague Tribunal's achievements can't overshadow that, says Zoran Arbutina.

UN Tribunal: Slobodan Praljak
Image: picture-alliance/AP Images/R. v. Lonkhuijsen

The Hague Tribunal has ended its work on a bizarre note: After the court rejected the appeal of former Bosnian Croat general Slobodan Praljak, upholding his 20 year jail sentence, the convicted man yelled out: "Slobodan Praljak is not a war criminal. I reject your verdict!" He then drank from a small bottle that he held in his hands and said: "I just drank poison." Praljak died in a nearby hospital shortly thereafter. It was a perfectly staged media suicide.

Praljak, who had three university degrees and worked as a television and theater director, drank the poison knowing that many people in Croatia as well as Bosnia-Herzegovina would be watching the live broadcast of court proceedings. And he was fully aware of the effect that it would have: Croatian media outlets rushed to proclaim sadness over the death of "a Croatian hero." The Croatian president and the country's foreign minister each broke off trips abroad in order to return home as quickly as possible. Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic explained: "His act, which we regrettably saw today, mostly speaks about a deep moral injustice towards six Croats from Bosnia and the Croatian people."

Praljak poisons himself
Praljak poisoned himself with the cameras rollingImage: Reuters/ICTY

Insults and praise

And of course people were extremely angry about the Tribunal itself. Many spoke of ineptitude and injustice, others of a plot against Croats and Croatia in general and Dragan Covic, the Croatian chairman of the tripartite presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina, went so far as to say: "The judges are nothing more than the puppets of those who sent them there."

At the same time, Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosniak chairman of the presidency of Bosnia-Herzegovina, praised the Tribunal and its condemnation of what judges called a "collective criminal enterprise" of Croats in Bosnia.

Thus, other than Praljak's personally tragic yet demonstrably defiant suicide, one can easily see that what is now happening is part of a well-established routine: Judges at the Hague Tribunal hand down a verdict, then one side sees itself as the victor and the other unleashes a massive tirade of outrage. It matters little whether they are Croats, Serbs or Bosniaks — it is simply a matter of who is on the dock at any given time. Commentators and citizens in Serbia never tire of pointing out that the majority of those convicted have been Serbs who were sentenced to some 1,200 years in prison, four of them receiving life sentences. And now Croats have a martyr as well, one willing to die for his beliefs and for his people.

An unfortunate end to a positive contribution

Doubtless, it is unfortunate that the work of the Tribunal should end with such a highly publicized scandal. Nevertheless, seen in the larger context of the court's 25-year history it was not that far out of the ordinary. The Tribunal's work was attacked by many countries from the former Yugoslavia at the very outset. Its judges were treated with scorn, being labeled corrupt or incompetent at every turn. There were the strange courtroom performances of Vojislav Seselj, the founder of the Serbian Radical Party, and the angry tirades of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. The accused often defamed and insulted judges and stormed out of the proceedings.

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DW's Zoran Arbutina

Nonetheless, on balance, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) performed quite positively. In the 25 years of its existence, the Tribunal indicted 161 people, interviewed more than 4,600 eyewitnesses and collected more than 2.5 million documents. Numerous high-ranking political and military leaders were forced to stand trial for their crimes, as well as a large number of low-level warlords who never imagined they would ever have to answer for their deeds in a court of law. Facts were laid out in such a way that no rational human being could dispute them, and many victims finally had the chance to confront their abusers. They were given the opportunity to look perpetrators in the eye in the courtroom without fearing for their safety.

Advancing the cause of international Justice

The UN Tribunal also did a great service in advancing international justice. It was the first time that the UN Security Council decided to apply the principles of the UN Charter with the rule of law rather than with weapons. German judge Wolfgang Schomburg called the court "a quantum leap on the path to more justice."

All of that also opens the possibility of reconciliation and dealing with the pain of the past for the peoples of the former Yugoslavia. Thus far, that potential has not been taken advantage of, mainly because political elites prefer to stoke the traditional animosities that have proven so lucrative for their success. And now Slobodan Praljak has done his part, too, with his well-staged public suicide. Needless to say, it was no mistake. It was a calculated move. But when the noise dies down and the dust settles, perhaps it will be possible to call for a peaceful coexistence and to develop new perspectives for the future. That is something that all of the countries of the former Yugoslavia could desperately use. 

Convict drinks poison in court

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