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world HUMAN RIGHTS

After 24 years, world's longest-running war crimes court gives final verdict

The UN war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia changed history by defining how to deliver justice after such atrocities. Yet, it could not help the Balkan nations reconcile.

Friday 8 December, 2017
Satellite trucks and cameras set up outside the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, Netherlands.
Satellite trucks and cameras set up outside the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, Netherlands. Foto:AP-Peter Dejong

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After 161 defendants, 11,000 work days, and six life sentences, the longest-running war crimes court in history has handed down its final verdict.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established in 1993 by the UN Security Council to bring justice following the Balkans conflict of the 1990s, when the worst atrocities in Europe were committed since World War II.

In total the tribunal charged 161 people, including then Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic.

"When I took office in 2008, still nobody believed that we would get Karadzic or Mladic," ICTY chief prosecutor Serge Brammerz said.

The Bosnian Serb political and military leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic were accused of many crimes, including the genocide at Srebrenica. They were arrested and handed over by Serbia - Karadzic in 2008 and Mladic in 2011. 

Both were handed hefty sentences. In 2016, Karadzic was given 40 years in prison. Last week, Mladic was sentenced to life.

Their appeals will be handled by the UN Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals (MICT) as the ICTY closes its doors.

Sceptism

There was scepticism when the ICTY was created, which seemed at that time to be just another hollow political gesture. Two years later came the genocide at Srebrenica, which stunned the world as the most horrifying event in Europe since the Holocaust. 

Amid resistance from the countries involved, who did not wish to surrender their perceived war heroes, it appeared unlikely that all would face justice.

In the end, not one would escape.

The ICTY sentenced 84 of the 161 charged, withdrawing indictments or terminating proceedings in only 37 cases – most notably that of Milosevic, who died of heart failure in 2006 before the verdict in his trial could be reached.

Milosevic's death may have prevented the judgement, but the ICTY wrote a new chapter in history.

"It changed international criminal law," Brammerz said. The tribunal rigorously defined responsibility for genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

According to Brammerz, it was crucial that the ICTY recognized sexual violence as a crime against humanity. "Rape had previously been largely viewed as collateral damage of war … The tribunal put an end to that."

The first international tribunal for war crimes since the one which tried Nazi leaders in Nuremberg, the ICTY also became a model for those handling crimes in Rwanda and Sierra Leone.

The ICTY would not have prevailed without political backing. Serbia extradited the key accused only after years of intense pressure from the United States and the European Union.

Reconciliation

Yet it seems the region is not building on the ICTY's legacy. The tribunal only had the capacity to deal with certain key atrocities and figures.

In Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia and Montenegro there are many who took part in atrocities, but remain free and unchallenged. Brammerz, who will stay on as a prosecutor with the MICT, says that Belgrade still does not fully cooperate.

In addition, there is no sign of reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia, which was another goal of the international community when it established the ICTY.

"No verdict can bring about reconciliation," Brammerz said, assigning responsibility for that to the communities. "When I see politicians in former Yugoslavia, I am not very optimistic."

Particularly in Serbia, the ICTY is demonised as an instrument of the anti-Serb west and convicted criminals, such as Mladic, are revered as heroes.

"National justice systems still act in a role envisaged by politicians," said Natasa Kandic of the Belgrade-based Regional Committee for Reconciliation (RECOM). 

"In ex-Yugoslav countries there is only political will to judge the others, never our own perpetrators," she told dpa.

- DPA (Reporting by Annette Birshel and Boris Babic)

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