From Nuremberg to Bosnia and Beyond: War Crimes Trials in the Modern Era

By Colwill, Jeremy | Social Justice, Fall 1995 | Go to article overview

From Nuremberg to Bosnia and Beyond: War Crimes Trials in the Modern Era


Colwill, Jeremy, Social Justice


A diversity of opinion is now apparent over the proposed trials of alleged war criminals arising out of the events in the former Yugoslavia. The Hague International Tribunal was established under United Nations Security Council Resolution 827 of May 25, 1993, with a brief to prosecute war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide committed in the former Yugoslavia since the beginning of 1991. Following the appointment of Judge Richard Goldstone as the tribunal's prosecutor, the lengthy investigations that have been conducted have now borne fruit in the form of charges against 22 ethnic Serbs, only one of whom, however, is in the tribunal's custody awaiting trial, having been extradited by Germany. Dusko "Dule" Tadic is charged with 132 counts of crimes against humanity and breaches of the Geneva Conventions, including murder, rape, and torture of Muslim men and women in the Omarska detention camp, an iron-ore mining complex in northern Bosnia that was converted into a prison by the Bosnian Serbs during the first summer of "ethnic cleansing" in 1992. Those facing these charges, including Tadic, are comparatively minor actors in the horrific events in the former Yugoslavia, but the tribunal's official position is that all those in respect of whom there is evidence, no matter who they are or whatever position they occupy, will be pursued - a policy underlined by the tribunal's announcement on April 24, 1995, that Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader, and General Ratko Mladic, his military commander, are now being investigated as war crimes suspects.

That diversity of views concerning the tribunal ranges from the positively supportive to the rather more negatively cynical and skeptical, although there is often much overlap in the positions adopted. Those taking a more positive stance tend to view the establishment of the tribunal in terms of a "moral imperative" (Meron, 1993), suggesting that, in a post-Cold War international relations context, to continue to ignore war crimes is to condone them (McCoubrey, 1993), and that whatever the failings in this respect in the past, it is essential for the international community to realize that "it must start somewhere" (Szasz, 1993). Furthermore, adherents to these views point to the Hague tribunal's potential as a model precedent for the overdue realization of a longstanding postwar project -- the establishment of a permanent international criminal court. (See, for example, Fox, 1993; Martin, 1994; Warbrick, 1995.)

Alternatively, there is a significantly more skeptical and cynical body of opinion concerning these developments that is not simply about what are perceived as insuperable practical problems in terms of mounting and conducting war crimes prosecutions, but which understands the entire project as an essentially cynical and inappropriate element in a wider response by the international community to events in the former Yugoslavia that is itself evasive and shameful:

What are those in a besieged city supposed to make of an international

organisation which is capable of authorising Desert Storm, and which in

Bosnia turns a blind eye to murder.... What will be made of a U.S. Air

Force which ... only rains down humanitarian aid from a great height

(Roberts, 1993: 443)?

If states are serious about controlling war crimes, this view suggests, there should have been positive support for die attempt to establish a permanent criminal court very many years ago (Zacklin, 1994). Furthermore, it is suggested, nobody seriously expects Serbian and Bosnian Serb leaders actually to be brought to trial when the very possibility of peace will ultimately depend on concluding successful negotiations with them (Higgins, 1993).

Whatever view is taken of die proposed war crimes trials, the very existence of the tribunal and its apparent determination to carry out its mandate at whatever level appears feasible is of very considerable significance in terms of international law generally and of the development of humanitarian law in particular. …

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