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Is International Justice the Enemy of Peace?

It is only a little more than fifteen years ago that the first of the contemporary international courts was created to prosecute those who commit war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. That court, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, may soon mete out justice to a new defendant, following the arrest in Belgrade of Radovan Karadzic, wartime leader of Bosnia’s Serbs.

Yet there is already a persistent theme in criticism of such tribunals: in their effort to do justice, they are obstructing achievement of a more important goal, peace. Such complaints have been expressed most vociferously when sitting heads of state are accused of crimes. The charges filed by the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court against Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir for crimes against humanity and genocide in Darfur are the latest example.& Indeed, the denunciations of the justice process this time are more intense and more vehement than in the past.

The complaints were also loud in 1995, when the ICTY’s prosecutor indicted Karadzic and his military chief, General Ratko Mladic, and even louder when they were indicted again later in the same year for the massacre at Srebrenica. The timing of that second indictment especially aroused critics, because it came just before the start of the Dayton peace conference.& Because they faced arrest, Karadzic and Mladic did not go to Dayton.

But, as matters turned out, their absence did not hinder the parties from reaching an agreement. Indeed, it may have helped as the leaders of Bosnia, Croatia, and Yugoslavia negotiated an end to the war in Bosnia.