As the tribunal that heard genocide cases from the Yugoslav civil war packs up, remember that only indictees who died evaded judgment at The Hague.
At its peak, 1,600 people worked at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, based in a former insurer’s headquarters in the leafy diplomatic quarter of The Hague.
Staff recall a convivial atmosphere on Friday nights at Churchillplein 1, with the many ranks and functions the tribunal needed to operate sharing a drink on finer nights on its large terrace – rounding off another week when the tribunal confronted Europe’s most horrific crimes since the end of the Second World War, before heading home.
By the time I visited in 2015, the building had the feel of a school half an hour after the final bell had gone. Hard corridors and staircases had the empty echo, and I found those still there highly collegiate. Some, like the twinkly-eyed Australian policeman Bob Reid, who’d excavated the Srebrenica mass grave, were doing a high-powered version of tidying up – in his case having served since the ICTY’s foundation in 1994.
But if it felt like a school, the list of those in detention was formidable. Radovan Karadic, whose verdict came the following year was found guilty of genocide for the Srebrenica massacre, crimes against humanity and war crimes.
Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladić was on trial for two counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina from May 1992 to late 1995. Indicted in July 1995, he was finally apprehended in 2011. A total of 377 witnesses testified at his trial. The court reached a guilty verdict last month.
The ‘suicide in court’ of former Bosnian Croat Slobodan Praljak, on losing his appeal, was a frustrating note for the court on which to end its work.
For a counter-image, look for footage on ICTY’s website of its highly respected deputy registrar Kate Mackintosh giving a speech recalling what the tribunal had achieved logistically – the first effort at delivering international justice since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials at the end of the Second World War.
But Praljak’s act of defiance is not without symbolic power.
From its early days, the tribunal knew it needed to explain its work to a still-volatile region. A change in the political wind delivered up its early indictees, but that wind came from the west – Bob Reid links it to Robin Cook becoming foreign secretary and to General Sir Mike Jackson’s irritation at having indictees wandering freely over the post-peace deal Nato mandate.
Despite ‘outreach’ work on the ground, and the court’s stress on transparency of all its proceedings, and the fact that people from all sides were found guilty at The Hague, there are plenty of Bosnian Serbs nationalists who see defendants from their own community as heroes. The current Russian government sees little problem in equivalent sentiments when expressed across its sphere of influence.
Knowledge of that will likely temper the ‘celebration’ of a job well done at the ITCY.
But for anyone who recalls the horror related by soldiers and journalists from the original civil war, and the years those now confirmed as responsible spent evading the court, celebration of its work is exactly what we should feel in looking back at its work.