A Final Hurdle for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia

Mladic ICFY
By Sara Sudetic

In an interview at the height of his power, the Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladić once spitefully said to a foreign reporter: “I do not need the press, because I shall be vindicated by history”. Since his arrest in the small, sleepy village of Lazarevo in northern Serbia, the eyes of the world, and indeed of the press, have been turned to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). His wish to be judged by history will come true, as his trial in front of the first UN war crimes tribunal is due to start in the following months.

Despite his arrest being an obvious victory for international criminal justice, in the past weeks a number of news articles have hinted at a certain weariness towards the lengthy procedures and trials of the ICTY. A number of foreign officials have insisted on the need for a swift, efficient trial. Another Miloševićscenario, in which a high-ranking accused dies in dubious circumstances before the court reaches a verdict, could be a severe blow to the tribunal’s reputation. Mladić’s health has been a subject of concern since his arrest: he is reported to have suffered a number of strokes in the past years, which have left one arm paralysed and his speech slurred, yet coherent. Aware of the reality of this threat, the prosecutor of the ICTY, Serge Brammertz has proposed an amended indictment to restructure and simplify the counts faced by  Mladić.

Echoing this general sentiment, many journalists have frowned upon the delaying of the tribunal’s closing date, which has, yet again, been pushed back to the end of 2014. Almost seventeen years after the UN Security Council passed Resolution 827 establishing the war crimes tribunal, members of the international community are growing weary of footing the rather high cost of justice. Indeed, the budget of the ICTY for the year 2009-2010 alone reached almost US$302 million.

Yet, despite the vast scope and unprecedented nature of its task, the ICTY has indeed come a very long way in achieving its goal of prosecuting the persons responsible for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia. It has sent a powerful message of responsibility and accountability throughout the international community: a grand total of 125 proceedings have already been concluded, with 36 accused still standing trial. The tribunal’s three court rooms have been running double shifts since the early 2000s.

With Mladićin the custody of the ICTY, only one indictee remains at large: Goran Hadžić, the former president of the Republic of Serbian Krajina, who faces fourteen counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity. This is remarkable given that the tribunal has no police force, and no powers of arrest. The ICTY is entirely reliant on the cooperation of the governments of the former Yugoslav states to arrest and transfer fugitives, states which not only showed blatant contempt for the tribunal in the past, but, in many cases, have provided protection from arrest to fugitives for years.

Indeed, for the ICTY, the situation today is a far cry away from the early years of the tribunal. In 1995, the presidents of Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, all of whom would have an investigation opened by the tribunal on their involvement in the Yugoslav Wars, were sitting at the same negotiation table as Presidents Bill Clinton and Jacques Chirac, Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Prime Minister John Major. In 1997, as few as eight suspects were actually detained at The Hague.

In the previous weeks, many have asked why the capture of Ratko Mladićhas taken such a long time for Serbia. They seem to forget that Serbia and the other states of the former Yugoslavia remain the first countries in the world to have handed over such an important chunk of their political and military elite to an international tribunal. This was a crucial gesture in developing the field of international justice, and fighting impunity not only in the former Yugoslavia, but throughout the world.

This fundamental shift in fighting impunity has developed and put forward a jurisprudence fundamental to the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and other war crimes tribunals established under the aegis of the UN. It has also provided the organisational methods and rules of procedures essential to the creation and development of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Without the precedent the Miloševićcase has put forward, the prosecutor of the ICC, Luis Moreno-Ocampo, would have had much more difficulty in issuing indictments charging the President of Sudan, Omar El-Bashir, of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, and Colonel Gaddafi of crimes against humanity for the widespread attacks on protesters in Libya.

Yet, the precedent that the ICTY has set does not only have a legal dimension. They have been actively involved in bridging the gap between the international tribunal and the different communities of the former Yugoslavia. In the last two years, the Prosecutor Serge Brammertz has visited the widows of Srebrenica, the worst act of violence committed on European soil since the Second World War, more than ten times. From the beginning, the tribunal has been supporting and cooperating with local war crimes tribunals, whose goal is to prosecute war crimes at a lower level, by contributing its expertise towards training local prosecutors and judges, so as to enhance the capability of national jurisdictions. Throughout the former Yugoslavia, the ICTY has been regularly liaising with members of victims’ associations, municipal authorities, judicial institutions, as well as local politicians and civil society representatives, so as to ensure and maintain a healthy connection with the victims of the Balkan wars.

In this case, Ratko Mladić’s words apply not only to himself, but to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia as an institution. Although sensationalist headlines and a healthy dose of speculation from the media are vital in broadcasting the very existence and numerous goals of the tribunal, the true measure of its success will only be vindicated by history.


Sara Sudetic is currently studying War Studies and History at King's College London. She has a passion for international justice and journalism and has interned for the Internationational Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and Le Monde. She is particularly interested in the Balkans and the Middle East.


25 June 2011


Related Article:

Sara Sudetic, What Ratko Mladić's Arrest Means For Serbia