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Yugoslav war crimes court helped end era of impunity

Updated November 24, 2017

THE HAGUE: Born from the fires engulfing the Balkans in the 1990s, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia closes next month having tried and judged dozens of those behind Europe’s worst atrocities since World War II.

From helping to write the history of the bitter conflict, to putting war criminals around the globe on notice that they too could up in the dock, to setting international jurisprudence for such crimes as genocide, law experts say the tribunal leaves an impressive legacy.

It showed it was “possible to bring to justice the high-level figures responsible for the crimes committed in the Balkans conflict”, said Diana Goff, an international lawyer and research fellow at the Clingendael Institute.

And “it provided an updated blueprint for how to create an international criminal tribunal in the post-Cold War era”.

Alarmed by reports of mass killings, systematic rape and ethnic cleansing as inter-communal rivalries ripped Yugoslavia apart after the death of its iron-fisted ruler Tito, the international community decided something had to be done.

But absent political will for a military intervention, the UN Security Council in May 1993 made a gesture, adopting resolution 827 creating an international tribunal “to put an end to such crimes and ... to bring to justice the persons responsible”.

The ICTY was the first war crimes court set up by UN and the first international tribunal established since the Nuremberg trials.

It was also to provide a model for similar ad hoc tribunals to prosecute those responsible for the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

But “expectations were not very high” at first, admitted the court’s chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz in an interview hours before Wednesday’s guilty verdict and life sentence handed down to brutish former Bosnian Serb military commander Ratko Mladic.

Sceptics said at the time there would be no indictments, no convictions and no sentences.

Now, as the court prepares to close its doors on Dec 31 after having indicted 161 people, all of whom faced some kind of justice, expert Goff said it had set “a gold standard” for prosecuting and defining such complex crimes as genocide.

It became the first international court ever to indict a sitting head of state, when in 1999 it unveiled an indictment against then Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic.

Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2017