In its pretty unimpressive, small, squeezed in the corner building in The Hague, the ICTY managed to hold accountable plenty of those responsible for numerous horrific events in Yugoslavia.
Or did it?
Located in the city of peace and justice, The Hague, the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was founded in 1993 and is expected to end its work in 2017. A United Nations court of law, the ICTY deals with the war crimes in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, committed outside of the Geneva Convention– genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.
The good sides
The ICTY provided a platform for the victims to voice their sufferings, and at the same time gave the opportunity to those convicted to defend with all means allowed. The courtrooms were open to the public (audience inside is allowed under certain rules, most of the proceedings are broadcasted), and to journalists, authors and researchers to gather direct information. The international body also provided a serious preparation for interpreters who had one of the toughest tasks – to translate simultaneously in several languages, and unemotionally, even when horrific events are described. Last but not least, the ICTY was a training camp of a very realistic scale for international law students from all over the world (including from the countries of former Yugoslavia). As interns, typically they have to process tons of boring documentation but are also able to learn firsthand valuable lessons, approaches and tactics, changed last minute.
For its years of existence, the ICTY has indicted over 160 people and has over 140 completed cases. Certain people responsible for countless of deaths and destroyed lifes heard their sentences in the court rooms – from years to life imprisonment.
The bad sides
What the ICTY was also set to do, is to be the honest non-biased arbiter and issue the final justice of this dreadful conflict in the heart of Europe in the late 20th century.
But that it will never be able to do so, for three reasons – feeling of injustice from the victims, an authority questioned by both them and the prosecuted, inability to transform the dry ruling of the international law to the emotional language of the affected sides. In this sense, no international organization will ever be successful, although they are still trying very hard.
For all those participating in the conflict in any way, the truth can never be unilateral and, what’s more, can never be served at its best by a third party. Why?
Because the Yugoslav wars were regional, have started as a demonstration of power by one prevailing group over the others and turned into a conflict between ethics and religions.
Therefore, only those who are part of it or are willing to fully understand can be of use. Instead, a solution provided from outside was almost always uninformed – first by UN forces, later also by peace negotiations abroad. Finally came the ICTY that was seen to have the power and the time to understand and serve justice as it is right. But, strangely, it didn’t, mostly for the victims.
People, who have not been spared by the dreadful consequences of the conflict, had higher hopes – for more rigorous sentences, for quicker capture of prominent faces of the conflict, for much better argumentation in the release of some. Going further, most of the prominent convicts are jailed in conditions far better than some of their victims used to live in, before the conflict (it is not by chance that the jail in The Hague is called “hotel Scheveningen”). Others were even shockingly acquitted – such is the case with the ultranationalist Vojislav Seselj for example, on quite dubious grounds. To make matters even more unjust, the President of Serbia prior and during the conflict Slobodan Milosevic, observed as one of the inspirers of the war, died of a heart attack during his very controversial trial. (Let’s hope he appeared to a higher, non-human court.)
The totality in the application of international law developed feelings of injustice to someone’s pain, of wrongful outsider’s involvement, of the inability for the international bodies to provide what is felt as morally honest. The arrest of Florence Hartmann only boils up the situation – the French journalist claimed important documents on the Srebrenica massacre were sealed by the ICTY. Led by the same feeling, the group Mothers of Srebrenica raised a civil action against the UN and the Netherlands for breach of duty and responsibility for the deaths in Srebrenica during the massacre (the case against the Netherlands was dismissed on 22 September 2016).
Such growing lack of trust feeds the other (quite typical, actually) paradox of the ICTY cases – rejection of authority and lack of guilt. Here again, Milosevic comes in mind with his open negligence of ICTY, using the court rooms as a platform to justify his actions.
In her book, They Would Never Hurt a Fly, the popular Croatian author Slavenka Drakulic describes her impressions on several of the more prominent convicts, obtained directly in the court rooms. Some explain their actions with ‘obeying orders’ and honestly cannot believe they are subject to prosecution since it was war. Others, like Ratko Mladic (aka The Butcher of Bosnia) openly and pretty vocally, didn’t recognize the authority and the ICTY’s eligibility to convict them for whatever they have done, despite the obvious evidence. They are all convinced they were fighting or protecting their own people and no multinational body can tell them differently. Fact is, certain groups of the so-called “own people” respond with an even loyalty. Which explains why some popular war criminals were able to hide for years to escape prosecution, (the most notorious case of all was Radovan Karadzic) or why others are seen as heroes in their home countries to this day, regardless of what the ICTY has sentenced them for.
ICTY: in a nutshell
ICTY’s biggest achievements are also its biggest failure. A manifestation of the rule of law that turned out to be far from satisfactory for anyone involved, to some extent, also damaging for the authority of international bodies. I am convinced that, unfortunately, similar conclusions can be drawn from the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the Special Tribunal for Lebanon.
Ideally, law is all about just and civilized manner, to keep people’s otherwise cruel nature away from the Biblical “eye for an eye”. But trust in law is a virtue, not something granted, and is only justified for those willing to accept it as it is – that is, a guarantee (not a master) of order, limited in compassion and sometimes not led by obvious morals.
* Pyrrhic victory is an idiom, derived from the history of Ancient Greece for a victorious event that took a toll heavy enough to negate any feeling of achievement.