'Mission accomplished' for UN war crimes court?

2 min 46Approximate reading time

Srebrenica, Vukovar, Sarajevo: towns and cities indelibly scarred by a painful and shameful history and seared forever into Europe's collective conscience.

For 23 years, their names and the memories of tens of thousands of victims have stalked the halls of the UN tribunal set up to punish those behind genocide, mass rapes and ethnic cleansing during Yugoslavia's violent death throes.

Now as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) prepares to deliver its final verdicts before closing its doors in 2017 and handing over to another mechanism, opinion on its legacy is divided.

Established by a UN mandate in May 1993, the court based in The Hague was a trailblazer in laying down ground-breaking jurisprudence for trying the worst of all crimes -- a decade before the creation of the International Criminal Court.

With a judgement on Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Kardazic due on Thursday and a verdict expected in 2017 against notorious military chief Rako Mladic, prosecutors say they have fulfilled a tough mission.

The ICTY itself boasts "it has irreversibly changed the landscape of international humanitarian law and provided victims an opportunity to voice the horrors they witnessed and experienced".

It also has an unrivalled record -- all of the 161 people indicted on charges of genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity have been caught and processed.

- No fugitives -

Even though former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic died in his cell in 2006 before his trial ended, 80 others have been sentenced, most of whom are still serving long jail terms.

"I think that the tribunal has done what it had to do. I can say mission accomplished," chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz told AFP.

In the convulsions which tore apart Yugoslavia, national courts would not have been able to do the same work as the ICTY, which "can close with no fugitives at large, with all trials processed," he said.

The court played an important role in investigating atrocities on the ground -- even during the height of the fighting -- amassing nine million pages of documents, leaving a major legacy for historians and activists.

Brammertz also highlights the ICTY's outreach to national courts established in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia where thousands of individuals are still under investigation.

"National prosecutions have shrunk the space for denial," said former US ambassador for war crimes issues Stephen Rapp.

Prosecutions and accountability are "one of the ways you remove the poison that affects the whole body politic," added Rapp, now an expert with The Hague Institute for Global Justice.

But the court's reputation was undeniably blemished by several high-profile acquittals, amid unsubstantiated rumours of pressure by the United States.

And experts caution that some of the tribunal's loftiest ambitions -- such as its UN mission to restore and maintain peace in the region -- remain unfulfilled.

"I don't think that's necessarily the fault of the tribunal," said war crimes expert Rachel Kerr, a senior lecturer at King's College, London.

"It may be that the lesson that can be taken from it, is that international criminal justice is not actually the best tool for fostering peace and reconciliation," she told AFP.

American Eric Stover, who was among the first investigators on the ground and helped uncover a mass grave containing 200 bodies in the Croatian town of Vukovar in 1992, agrees.

"Courts are backwards looking. They look at the facts and adjudicate individual responsibility. They're not designed as social engineering institutions," said Stover, now director of the Human Rights Center at the University of California, Berkeley.

- Skewed legacy -

Another problem was that, over time, the court was to some extent "hijacked" by the political agendas of the new Balkans nations as they jostled to join the European Union.

The narrative was presented "that people were again sacrificing themselves for the good of Serbia by going up to this court that 'we don't recognise the legitimacy of'... because we're going to get EU accession," said Kerr.

And while justice has been served for many, the sheer scale of the barbarity means it has not been delivered to all, experts agree.

Perhaps the court's most telling legacy are the haunting statements of those who pleaded guilty.

"This responsibility is mine and mine alone," former Bosnian Serb president Biljana Plavsic told the court in 2002, before being sentenced to 11 years in prison.

"The knowledge that I am responsible for such human suffering and for soiling the character of my people will always be with me."