It may have taken over two decades but as the verdict looms in the trial of Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, his UN prosecutor says it’s never too late for justice.
More than 20 years after the excruciating 44-month siege of Sarajevo and the massacre of almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica, Karadzic will on March 24 hear whether judges have found him guilty of 11 charges, including two of genocide.
“There have been many important trials in this tribunal, there have been many important judgements, but the one in relation to Karadzic will for sure be one of the most important in the history of the tribunal,” Serge Brammertz told AFP Friday in an exclusive interview.
After former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic died in 2006 while on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Karadzic will become the highest level politician to be judged for the atrocities which accompanied the break-up of the country in the 1990s.
That makes the verdict “very important in terms of the responsibility of political leaders for the suffering of their own people,” said Brammertz, a Belgian national and seasoned jurist.
– Europe’s most wanted –
Brammertz was only a few months into his post as chief prosecutor at the ICTY when he received a call in July 2008 to say that, after 13 years on the run, it looked like Karadzic was about to be nabbed.
It was a pivotal moment. Over the years since the tribunal was set up by the United Nations at the height of the wars in 1993, everybody had become “very pessimistic” about the chances of tracking the fugitives down.
A date for wrapping up the court had already been set — 2010.
And yet in every meeting with victims’ groups “the number one request” was always to arrest Karadzic and notorious Bosnian Serb army chief Ratko Mladic.
As Brammertz took in the news that one of Europe’s most wanted men had finally been captured and would be headed for the tribunal in The Hague, he felt the weight of the moment and what it “represented for those thousands of victims waiting for their day.”
“We all know the saying ‘justice delayed, is justice denied’ but in this specific case, it’s never too late. And it will bring justice to victims.”
The massacre in Srebrenica, a UN-protected enclave, was “the most important single crime committed since World War II on European soil.”
More than 10,000 people, including 1,500 children, died in the siege of Sarajevo as Bosnian Serb forces sought to squeeze their Bosnian Muslims rivals into surrendering.
Karadzic went on trial in October 2009, and closing arguments wrapped up in October 2014.
Despite the fact that it’s been a long road — a verdict in the Mladic case is only due next year after his capture in 2011 — bringing people to justice remains Brammertz’s priority.
– Haunted by the missing –
He dismisses criticism that the ICTY is only stirring up painful memories of events that happened long ago and should be laid to rest.
“Personally I’m absolutely convinced that to give reconciliation a chance, accountability is absolutely important,” said Brammertz, in his office in The Hague, adorned with a large portrait of Mahatma Gandhi.
It remains painful that so many people are still missing two decades after the wars, and Brammertz has also been dismayed by the lingering bitter divisions in the region.
Yet he recognises the tribunal’s limitations — and that some who committed atrocities may also have slipped through the net.
“Justice has been done for sure. To all victims? Unfortunately no, because we have to select cases,” Brammertz said.
Limited resources and time meant prosecutors were given an unpalatable choice “between grave and even graver cases”.
The tribunal — which has indicted 161 people, more than any other single international tribunal — could not “prosecute each single rape, massacre and other important crimes. This is for sure one of our greatest frustrations.”
But as he prepares for Karadzic’s verdict, Brammertz insisted: “I think that if there had not … been accountability, if there had not been the tribunal, the situation today would have been a lot worse.”