The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia: Why the World Should Care

“How could the whole world sit at home and watch this and do nothing to stop it?”
I asked myself this question as I was looking through videos of news reports from the Bosnian war during the 1992-1995. As an intern at Sense News Agency that specializes in covering all of the trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, my job is to look through and organize archival footage, some of which proves various war crimes committed during the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia. One of the ongoing projects at the agency is gathering and categorizing footage, pictures, transcripts and witness testimonies that would later form part of an important resource for research on the Yugoslav wars. Much of the footage taken in Bosnia during that time showed the Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic, arrogant and fearless, ordering the shelling of Bosnia’s capital Sarajevo or entering the town of Srebrenica where almost 8,000 Muslim men and boys were massacred.
The whole world watched when Mladic, the highest commander of the Bosnian Serb Army allegedly responsible for the Bosnian genocide, was finally arrested on 26 May 2011. Several days later, he appeared in front of the judges of the Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, 16 years after he was first charged with genocide and crimes against humanity.
Coming from Bosnia and Herzegovina and thinking that Ratko Mladic’s arrest was only important for peace and reconciliation in the region that suffered the most due to his crimes, I was surprised by the international frenzy around the accused. Nevertheless, as much as Mladic’s facing justice mattered to the public at home, it seems to have mattered greatly for the global public, as well.
On 4 July, the day that Mladic was supposed to enter a plea in his second appearance in front of the judges, my boss allowed me to take a break from my archival work. Sitting in the office of the Sense News Agency at The Hague Tribunal together with my coworkers, I watched Mladic on the screens transmitting the events in the courtroom. Although I was not a part of the larger group of journalists following the proceeding in the building’s main lobby, I could still witness the atmosphere surrounding the Tribunal facilities. There was a feeling of tension around the building, especially since there were speculations that Mladic had refused to be brought into the courtroom. He appeared, however, only to perform a spectacle where he presented himself as the victim of the court that, according to him, “would not let him breathe.” After Mladic’s continuous disorderly conduct, the presiding judge, Alphonse Orie ordered that the indictee be taken out of the courtroom after which he marked the “not guilty” plea on behalf of the indicted.
After this minor incident, a wave of confusion swept over the building full of journalists who were uncertain of what was going to happen next. Most of the foreign press stepped outside of the building ready with questions for the Tribunal’s spokesperson and the NGO representatives, mainly the organization The Mothers of Srebrenica (Majke Srebrenice), whose husbands, sons and brothers were the victims of the Srebrenica genocide. While various answers, comments and opinions were heard among the crowd, it all came down to one point- the hope that justice will be delivered. It occurred to me that the attention created around Ratko Mladic and around the Tribunal that day was an act of witnessing the rule of law at work. I personally saw Mladic’s appearance at The Hague as one of the opening pages of the chapter of reconciliation in my region, but the world seems to have seen a broader picture. It appeared as if the journalists from Associated Press, BBC, Al Jazeera and others were there to report on the success of the Tribunal and international law in the context of protecting the global community from crimes against humanity. The interest seems to have been even greater given that 16 years after Srebrenica, when all hope for justice almost faded away, the Tribunal proved that the criminals would be brought to court and that crimes such as genocide would eventually be punished.
The Tribunal has certainly proved its importance for the success of international law and global justice over the past 18 years of its existence. Despite the overall positive results, there are some drawbacks of this UN institution such as the geographical gap between the court and the region where the crimes in question took place, failure to communicate its purpose to the public in the ex-Yugoslav region through general outreach, and the limited number of cases it can process given its resources. Nevertheless, a number of achievements testify to the Tribunal’s contribution to accountability in an international context and the deliverance of global justice. Some of the most significant points of success of the Tribunal include strengthening the rule of law and developing international law through jurisprudence.
As stated at, the ICTY is “the first truly international war crimes tribunal, and the first tribunal established under Chapter VII of the UN Charter as a measure to maintain international peace and security,” and as such, it “has proved that efficient and transparent international justice is viable.” Furthermore, in the words of the first president of the Tribunal, Antonio Cassese, this institution shows that “justice is an indispensable ingredient of the process of national reconciliation.” He added that “[justice] is essential to the restoration of peaceful and normal relations between people who have had to live under a reign of terror.” In that sense, the Tribunal has created a framework where impunity for crimes against humanity stands as an obstacle to our functioning as a global society.
While to a biased observer such as myself, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia might have a regional character, this UN institution is above all global. Just as its name suggests, it is here to serve the international community. Under the realm of service to everyone in this world who believe in global justice, the trial of Ratko Mladic should inspire one to think about his crimes not only as committed against Bosnian Muslims, but against the international community as a whole. This is the only way to make every individual care and commit to the ultimate “never again.”
Photo credit:
DW-WORLD.DE Deutsche Welle

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