In Depth

What did the Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal achieve?

The court that put Slobodan Milosevic in the dock is to be formally dissolved this week after 24 years and 161 indictments

The International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY) will be formally dissolved this week, after 24 years, 4,650 witnesses and 2.5 million pages of transcripts.

Has it achieved its objectives and what, if anything, will be its legacy?

 Established in 1993 as the former communist state of Yugoslavia torn itself apart, the ICTY was the first of its kind since the Nuremberg trial of Nazi war criminals at the end of the Second World War.

Sitting for a total of 10,800 days, the tribunal has had some notable successes, bringing a number of high-profile figures to trial. They included former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, General Ratko Mladic and Croatian commander Slobodan Pralkjak, whose in-court suicide brought international attention to the ICTY’s final judgement.

The court indicted 161 people, including former presidents, prime ministers and generals, all of whom were either caught, handed themselves in or died. Ninety of those brought to trial were convicted.

“Ultimate success in hunting down fugitives, however, has taken decades and there has been criticism that the tribunal represented victor’s justice: about two-thirds of those charged were Serbs,” says The Guardian.

Many Serbs have called the tribunal to a witch-hunt against their countrymen.

Speaking to The Guardian, Philippe Sands QC, professor of international law at University College London, said the ICTY’s example has been “pivotal”, paving the way for a broader international consensus on war crimes justice and heralding a more ambitious era of universal jurisdiction under the International Criminal Court.

“It was something utterly new in terms of international jurisdiction and humanitarian law,” said Wolfgang Schomburg, the first German judge at the ICTY in The Hague.

The international community’s decision to convene an ad hoc court - for this one purpose - was “a quantum leap on the path to more justice,” Schomburg told German news site DW.

While the tribunal blazed a trail of firsts, Radio Free Europe argues “shortcomings such as failing to prevent the early release of those found guilty of war crimes have planted lingering doubts over its success in bringing justice and reconciliation to a region where ethnic tensions continue to simmer”.

Over the years, the court has been accused of bowing to US pressure by acquitting several senior defendants on appeal, “the logic of this argument being that the US wanted to avoid setting an international legal precedent of convicting high-ranking generals that might one day be used to convict decision makers in the US military”, says DW.

Eric Gordy, a sociologist at University College London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies, said the tribunal’s major achievement was to give victims and civilians a voice in a way that would not have otherwise been possible, creating new legal precedents such as marking out sexual violence as a war crime and setting the precedent for tribunals about Rwanda and Sierra Leone.

However, with Russian and the US withdrawing from the jurisdiction of the ICC, and no tribunal set up to investigate wars crimes in Syria, “it remains to be seen whether the Yugoslav tribunal will become a relic from a more hopeful time or a trailblazer in a cause that was always bound to suffer setbacks”, says The Economist.

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