Tribunal Tribulations

By Rojansky, Matt | Harvard International Review, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Tribunal Tribulations


Rojansky, Matt, Harvard International Review


The ICTY today

The trial of two dozen Nazi war criminals at Nuremberg in the fall and winter of 1945 set a crucial historical precedent.

Their conviction and punishment were meant not only to condemn the Nazis for mass murder and unrestrained aggression, but also to serve as a warning to future generations that the civilized world would not tolerate such barbarity again. In the years since the Nuremberg trials, the world's moral and political resolve to uphold these precedents has repeatedly been challenged.

One of the gravest of such challenges has been the continued chaos and suffering in the ethnically torn states of the former Yugoslavia. Since Yugoslavia's disintegration in 1991, tens of thousands of civilians of all ethnicities have perished in Bosnia and Kosovo. In response to these atrocities, in 1993 the UN Security Council established the International Tribunal for the Prosecution of Persons Responsible for Serious Violations of International Humanitarian Law Committed in the Territory of the Former Yugoslavia since 1991, commonly called the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia (ICTY).The Tribunal was granted the power to prosecute any violations of the 1949 Geneva Convention, violations of the laws or customs of war, and willful perpetration of genocide or crimes against humanity. But as broad as this mandate may appear, the power of the tribunal itself has been severely limited by political conflicts, by the precedent set by the Nuremberg trials, and by a lack of resources.

To date, the ICTY has indicted mostly Serbs, some Croats, and a few Muslims. Given the actual breakdown of war crimes since 1991 this proportion seems logical. Factions of the Yugoslav army, supported by Bosnian Serb guerrillas, committed the vast majority of atrocities during the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. These atrocities included such infamous slaughters as the Srebrenica massacre, where a Dutch-manned UN "safe area" was overrun by Serb forces who proceeded to summarily execute Bosnian Muslim civilians. Regardless of such evidence, Serbs in Yugoslavia and around the world see the large number of Serbs indicted as a sign of the Tribunal's bias. This purported imbalance feeds President Milosevic's propaganda machine, which paints the Tribunal as an agent of US influence. Most frustrating for the Tribunal, Milosevic-led Serbia has served as a sympathetic safe-haven for Bosnian Serb war criminals, even before the anger stirred by the Kosovo conflict. By sheltering war criminals, Serbia has used its limited power and influence to obstruct the Tribunal's efforts.

The ICTY must rely on the support of UN member states. Serbia, however, is not the Tribunal's only political opponent. Russia, bound to its "southern brethren" by religious, ethnic, and linguistic affinities, has long been a friend of Serbia and its most vocal advocate in the United Nations. Though it supports the ICTY in principle, Russia was hard pressed to accept the Tribunal's indictment of Milosevic and his closest associates. Russia's distaste for the ICTY was reinforced when Louise Arbour, chief prosecutor of the World Court, the Tribunal's parent agency, announced the indictment of Serbs in the midst of NATO bombing of Kosovo, which Russia staunchly opposed. Encouraged by close ties with Serbia and domestic anti-Western sentiment, prominent Russian politicians have described the Tribunal's campaign against Bosnian Serb and Serbian war criminals as Western bullying. They have backed Serbian outrage with their own hefty diplomatic weight. Even Croatia, considered a Western ally and a possible candidate for European Union and NATO membership, harbors its own share of grievances with the Tribunal.

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