Justice for Srebrenica’s Dead

THE HAGUE – In 1993, atrocities committed against Slavic Muslims near the Bosnian silver-mining town of Srebrenica catalyzed demands to establish a tribunal to try political and military leaders accused of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.

The new United Nations tribunal that was formed – nearly five decades after the final judgments were rendered at Nuremberg and Tokyo – became the forerunner of ad hoc courts to prosecute perpetrators of Rwanda’s genocide, Charles Taylor and his blood-diamond butchers in Sierra Leone, and the Khmer Rouge killers in Cambodia. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) also gave rise to the permanent International Criminal Court to try war criminals worldwide.

Undeterred by the still-untested ICTY’s reach, Serb soldiers finally overran Srebrenica itself – despite its status as a “safe area” under UN protection – 15 years ago, on July 11, 1995, and proceeded to expel the town’s people and execute 7,600 captives. Out of this massacre, however, the tribunal and foreign-backed war-crimes courts in Bosnia and Serbia have delivered the international justice effort’s most significant achievement to date.

With no media fanfare and limited arrest and investigative powers, and despite the foreign-policy and military “realists” who dismiss international justice as a pipedream, these judicial institutions have brought justice to Srebrenica’s dead and their survivors, and have demonstrated that justice can be delivered to victims in other conflict areas. It is an imperfect, unsatisfying justice, to be sure, but no more imperfect or unsatisfying than that dispensed by national courts.