The Future of War-Crimes Prosecutions

An interview with one of the International Criminal Tribunal's top attorneys.

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Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic enters the courtroom on the first day of his defense against war crime charges at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, on October 12, 2012. (Robin van Lonkhuijsen/Reuters)

THE HAGUE, Netherlands -- It is only a couple of years to go before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) closes its doors for good. All of its 161 indicted fugitives have been arrested but the trials in some of the most high-profile cases are still going on. I sat down with the chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, in The Hague to discuss the trials of defendants Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, his worries about the Bosnian legal system, and the legacy of Srebrenica.

The mandate of the ICTY is coming to an end in 2014 and you still have three important ongoing trials. Do you fear that these three trials might be rushed with this deadline in mind?As a part of the completion strategy put in place by the [UN] Security Council already in 2004, we have to finish and to finalize our remaining trials within a certain time frame -- currently at the end of 2014. I think that 2015 is probably more realistic.

Of course there is a form of political pressure behind which is a clear message we are receiving from New York. But I don't think it will impact on the quality of the work delivered. As far as the prosecution, as far the defense as also the judges [are concerned], I think we are all professionals and we make sure that international standards are maintained.

But of course we cannot endure that the completion strategy has some negative impact. For example, we are downsizing, we are losing staff, so with less staff we have to provide the same work, the same service, and this is of course a heavy burden on our remaining staff.

What do you make of Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic's statement that genocide did not take place at Srebrenica?I think it is absolutely unacceptable for a number of reasons. First, it is absolutely in contradiction with the legal qualification which has been made by the International Court of Justice and by the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia, where in both cases judges have decided that it is genocide and they are the competent authority to decide about it.

Secondly, I think it is really absolute disrespect towards the victims and survivors of those crimes. When they hear this, and I saw victims organizations [a] few weeks ago when I was in Sarajevo, they are of course totally shocked and feel absolutely insulted by these comments.

And the last element, it is of course absolutely not supporting any kind of reconciliation. By denying the obvious, you are of course not opening the doors for reconciliation and peacefully living together.

Do you think that local courts in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia-Herzegovina can deal with the cases related to the war after the ICTY has shut down?

If I look to Bosnia, I would [be] lying if I would say that I am absolutely optimistic that everything will be absolutely fine. There has been some progress, there are a number of dedicated people. There is a war crimes prosecution office, a state court.

I think that colleagues there are dedicated, but I was there a few weeks ago [and] they lack resources. With the current resources they will never be able to match the deadlines of the war crimes strategy. I also met again with prosecutors at the district and cantonal level and there a number of cases have been transferred from the state level to those more local entities and there we see the same problem -- prosecutors are not really being fully trained to investigate those kind of cases or [they don't have] enough resources to address them. So what I see over the last year is cases moving around, more than 150 cases moving from the state level to the entity level but this in itself is not resolving the problem.

Am I optimistic? I am by nature an optimistic person, I believe in the dedication of a number of people, but if there are not some structural changes, if there are no additional resources and if there is not a clear political commitment from all sides, I am still very skeptical about possible success.

What do you make of the statement that Radovan Karadzic, the wartime Bosnian Serb political leader, recently made at his genocide trial, in which he claimed that he should be praised for trying to prevent the war?

When he made this statement, the same day I was together with 25 victims' organizations from Bosnia, I was myself in Sarajevo. I got the first reactions by the victims organizations who were of course extremely shocked by this kind of comments.

What can I say? Of course this is not really in line with what my office has presented during the last two years as evidence in relation to his alleged responsibility. We are of course absolutely convinced that he played a major role in preparing and implementing the strategy of ethnic cleansing, that he played a major role in relation to the genocide in Srebrenica, that in relation to the siege of Sarajevo [he] bears one of the greatest responsibilities for the [some] 10,000 people who lost their lives there.

We are now in the defense phase. He has the right, like all accused, to present his defense and he will use the arguments he thinks he has to use. He has now started to present his evidence in relation to witness statements. Let's see if in the months to come witnesses he will present will confirm his alleged theory that he was a peace-loving individual. That is of course absolutely not what we think will be established based on the evidence.

The state of health of Karadzic's military commander, Ratko Mladic, has been much talked about recently. Do you fear that he will face the same fate as former Serbian and Yugoslav leader Slobodan Milosevic and pass away during his trial?

I have no crystal ball and I am not a doctor so I am really not in a position to make any statement in relation to Mladic's health. I can only quote Mladic himself and say what I am seeing when I see Mladic in the courtroom.

There can be no doubt that he is today in a much better health situation than the day he was arrested. I don't know if you remember the pictures when he was arrested, his health was in a very bad situation and he is saying himself that he is feeling much, much better than a year ago. I have no doubt that the registry will make sure that he is receiving all the necessary medical treatments.

So far the trial is advancing well. We have started the presentation of evidence and today I have no reason to think that this trial cannot move on.



This post appears courtesy of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

Presented by

Rikard Jozwiak is a reporter with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

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