Court's Value

Imperfect justice: impact of Srebrenica war crimes court

This week marks the 15th anniversary of Europe's worst atrocity since world war two: the Srebrenica massacre, in which some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by Bosnian Serb soldiers.

Established by the UN two years before Srebrenica, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) failed to stop the massacre. Many observers questioned the court's value, seeing it as yet another symbol of the UN's ineffectiveness in stopping the violence in the Balkans. Later, the tribunal ruled that what happened in Srebrenica was a genocide, and many observers again derided the court, dismissing the ruling as cold comfort for Srebrenica's victims and their families. Yet the court's finding of genocide is in fact a major accomplishment in international justice. For those who lost loved ones in Srebrenica, international acknowledgment of genocide is deeply meaningful.

A new book, That Someone Guilty Be Punished, examines the impact of the ICTY in Bosnia, with particular attention to the voices and perceptions of Bosnians, including survivors of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Their opinions are nearly unanimous in citing the genocide ruling as one the court's greatest accomplishments. As one Bosnian woman said, "finding that what happened at Srebrenica was a genocide is the most important achievement and without the ICTY this would not be possible." Another Bosnian interviewed for the book added that solely "based on this decision, the ICTY is successful."

As That Someone Guilty Be Punished makes clear, the ICTY is often criticised in Bosnia—for its lengthy and complex hearings, for engaging in plea bargaining, for issuing sentences viewed by many as too short, and for providing a stage for the self-aggrandising antics of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. But in drawing a nuanced portrait of Bosnians' complex feelings about the court, author Diane F. Orentlicher, professor of law at American University, also finds that the ICTY has succeeded in many ways, including helping to identify and punish the guilty, maintain peace, promote reconciliation, and establish the truth of what happened as the former Yugoslavia imploded.

In accomplishing this, the ICTY accomplished something greater: it delivered justice. As experienced by those who were interviewed by Orentlicher, that justice may be imperfect. But it is, as one interviewee says, "some sort of satisfaction."

One indication of the ICTY's success is the number of courts established since its founding to address atrocities in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, Kosovo, and Timor Leste, as well as the creation of the International Criminal Court. That Someone Guilty Be Punished extracts lessons from the ICTY to inform these courts, as well as potential future tribunals. The book also serves as a companion to Orentlicher's earlier study of the impact of the ICTY in Serbia, Shrinking the Space for Denial.

This week's anniversary serves as a reminder that, despite the ICTY's many achievements, its work is incomplete: the man who led the Srebrenica massacre, Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, is still at large. Every day he remains free, the ICTY's already imperfect justice becomes a bit more flawed.

(Published by The Guardian – July 19, 2010)

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