Stay the Course in The Hague

WASHINGTON D.C. -- After eight years on the job, Carla del Ponte is about to step down as the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. Set up by the United Nations to prosecute those on all sides in the Balkan wars – Serbs, Bosnian Muslims, Croats, and, later, Albanian Kosovars – who committed atrocities, it is imperative that the UN appoint a new prosecutor prepared to carry on del Ponte’s work.

The ICTY was the first international criminal tribunal since the Nuremberg and Tokyo Tribunals at the end of World War II. Despite a slow start, it has compiled an admirable record in bringing to justice and providing fundamentally fair trials for some 80 indictees, including generals, heads of state, and brutal prison camp commandants. The flagship for successor war crimes courts in Rwanda, Sierra Leone, East Timor, Cambodia, and the permanent International Criminal Court, the ICTY is now in its final phase, slated to close its doors in 2010.
These final years will be critical, not only for the ICTY’s reputation and legacy but for international humanitarian law (the so-called “laws of war”). The ICTY has overseen the development of a phenomenal body of jurisprudence that brings life to the abstract precepts of international law. It has clarified the meaning and obligations of the Hague and Geneva Conventions on the treatment of prisoners and civilians in occupied territories. That record must not be wasted.

Many of the highest-level trials are just beginning or will soon commence, and a substantial number of appeals are pending, which raise as yet undecided issues of the law of war. While only four ICTY indictees remain at large, two fugitives – Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic – are among the most notorious suspects who must face justice before the ICTY’s work can be considered complete.

As a former judge at the ICTY, I can attest to the indispensable role that prosecutors inevitably play. They ensure that key legal and factual issues get raised, that the best evidence is obtained – often through diplomatic means, but often at risk of life and limb in hostile territory – that guilty pleas do not dilute the truth, and that sentencing recommendations are commensurate with the crimes’ true dimensions.