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Justice for Srebrenica’s Dead

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THE HAGUE – In 1993, atrocities committed against Slavic Muslims near the Bosnian silver-mining town of Srebrenica catalyzed demands to establish a tribunal to try political and military leaders accused of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.

The new United Nations tribunal that was formed – nearly five decades after the final judgments were rendered at Nuremberg and Tokyo – became the forerunner of ad hoc courts to prosecute perpetrators of Rwanda’s genocide, Charles Taylor and his blood-diamond butchers in Sierra Leone, and the Khmer Rouge killers in Cambodia. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) also gave rise to the permanent International Criminal Court to try war criminals worldwide.

Undeterred by the still-untested ICTY’s reach, Serb soldiers finally overran Srebrenica itself – despite its status as a “safe area” under UN protection – 15 years ago, on July 11, 1995, and proceeded to expel the town’s people and execute 7,600 captives. Out of this massacre, however, the tribunal and foreign-backed war-crimes courts in Bosnia and Serbia have delivered the international justice effort’s most significant achievement to date.

With no media fanfare and limited arrest and investigative powers, and despite the foreign-policy and military “realists” who dismiss international justice as a pipedream, these judicial institutions have brought justice to Srebrenica’s dead and their survivors, and have demonstrated that justice can be delivered to victims in other conflict areas. It is an imperfect, unsatisfying justice, to be sure, but no more imperfect or unsatisfying than that dispensed by national courts.

The ICTY ruled the Srebrenica massacre to be an act of genocide. The tribunal and the local courts imprisoned 13 of those who gave the orders, as well as 17 execution-squad members; 11 more men, four of them leaders, are facing their reckoning. On trial now are Radovan Karadžić, the Bosnian Serb political leader, and Jovica Stanišić, the police minister in Slobodan Milošević’s Serbia.

Of course, the Bosnian Serb commander, Ratko Mladić remains a fugitive. But Serbia’s authorities, facing economic turmoil, cannot harbor him much longer if the United States and the European Union exert adequate pressure. Serbia recently surrendered Mladić’s war-time diaries.

The Srebrenica trials also yielded a soul-testing record of a crime whose gravity Serb political leaders, former UN officials, and others once shamefully denied. Thanks to the ICTY, anyone can read the transcripts of intercepted calls to deliver more “packages” to the killing fields. A Serb district president, Miroslav Deronjić, testified that Karadžić told him: “Miroslav, those people there must be killed.”

We know when, where, and to whom Mladić issued the kill order. The tribunal’s Web site has video of an execution. We know that a Serb truck driver rescued a boy who survived a firing squad and, crying for his father, crawled from a twisted scrum of bodies. We know that a Serb officer defied Mladić and refused to order his men to partake in mass murder.

The ICTY is flawed, of course. Judges and attorneys have treated too many witnesses with condescension, as if the tribunal were doing them a favor. Judges have sentenced too many killers to absurdly lenient prison terms, diminishing any deterrent effect that the tribunal might generate. And they threw the book at one of Mladić’s men who pled guilty and gave damning insider testimony, eliminating the prosecution’s leverage to obtain similar admissions. Prosecution officials also negligently incinerated personal effects of Srebrenica victims, as well as items discovered in Albania and other evidence, and then obfuscated to dodge a scandal. New rules and procedures, as well as better training, can minimize such failings.

But without the ICTY, impunity would have reigned for the murderers of Srebrenica and of less-renowned scenes of war crimes. Karadžić would still be flogging love potions in Belgrade. The retired generals would be tanning beside the Adriatic. Overwhelming proof of Croatia’s complicity with Serbia in the dismemberment of Bosnia – something the media have also ignored – would never have emerged.

And, following this anniversary of the massacre, it is safe to say that, without international justice, all of Srebrenica’s victims – including my brother-in-law’s father, Huso Čelik, and the others who are still missing – would still be moldering anonymously in mass graves. Their loved ones would be waiting still to gather at the town’s memorial cemetery, where, on this anniversary, they dropped to their knees, drew their hands over their eyes, and recited the funeral prayer to Allah for forgiveness of the living and the dead.

Chuck Sudetic, a former analyst at the ICTY, authored a book on the Srebrenica massacre and is making a film on the trials. He works for the Open Society Institute. Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2010.

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