Closing the Karadžić File

NEW YORK – The conviction by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) of Radovan Karadžić, the former Bosnian Serb leader, for crimes against humanity and genocide filled many, including me, with a sense of deep satisfaction. The verdict has not only brought some semblance of closure to the most brutal European conflict since World War II; it has also demonstrated the international community’s commitment to ensuring justice and accountability in such matters. Not even the not-guilty verdict of the Serbian nationalist leader Vojislav Šešelj, reached just a few days after Karadžić’s, can undermine that impact.

Nearly 25 years ago, in July 1992, I issued, on behalf of Human Rights Watch (which I then directed), a call for the ICTY’s establishment. At about the same time, the existence of the concentration camps that Karadžić’s forces had created – in which Muslim men and women were starved, tortured, raped, and murdered – came to light, catalyzing support for that call.

In early 1993, when the creation of the ICTY was still being debated, I made three trips to Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital besieged by Karadžić’s troops. It was a grim time. Almost nothing worked. There was no electricity or heat on those cold winter days; no water flowed from the faucets; and there was very little food. Worse, every day, many of the city’s residents were wounded and killed by shelling and sniping from the hills surrounding the city, which just a few years earlier had been enlivened by the 1984 Winter Olympics.

Those visits included meetings with Bosnian lawyers and others in which I discussed the incipient tribunal’s prospects and goals. While my words were met with polite nods and plenty of questions, few of the Bosnians to whom I spoke seemed to believe that the ICTY would actually amount to anything. Instead, they regarded the idea as a fantasy meant to provide some comfort in their darkest hour; at times, I wondered whether they were right.