Exiting International Justice

I recently took part in a conference in Belgrade entitled “Dealing with the Past in ex-Yugoslavia.” Although the rest of postcommunist Europe confronted such questions a decade ago, the Balkan wars of the 1990’s left both perpetrators and victims stuck in a time warp of justice delayed.

As the conference’s participants made their way into Belgrade’s Hyatt Hotel, an angry band of mostly older protesters bearing posters that read, “Free Milosevic” greeted them. In a flurry of media and security, they confronted Carla Del Ponte, chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Del Ponte is pressing Serbia’s government to cooperate in the still unresolved cases of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, who ordered, implemented, and oversaw the massacre of 7,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995.

The protesters are not unrepresentative of Serb opinion. Almost a decade after the start of the ICTY’s work, debate still rages over responsibility for war crimes, with little agreement on even the most basic facts of the conflicts in Bosnia, Croatia, and Kosovo. Serbian Prime Minister (then President) Vojislav Kostunica’s attempt in 2001 to set up a truth commission was doomed from the outset by allegations of bias, and was disbanded within a year.

The ICTY is also in trouble. To be sure, Milosevic is on trial in The Hague for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. But comparisons to the post-WWII Nuremberg tribunal have worn thin: as the proceedings drag on, observers wonder why it has taken so long to establish criminal liability. After all, at Nuremberg, the top rung of the Third Reich was tried and convicted within months.