Sep 12, 2021 - World

The Hague's war crimes trials for Yugoslavia wind down

Jovica Stanisic and Franko "Frenki" Simatovic behind glass partition at their Hague trial in June
Jovica Stanišić and Franko Simatović at The Hague in June. Photo: Piroschka Van De Wouw/ANP/AFP via Getty Images

Appeals filed this week by two former Serbian State Security officials convicted of aiding and abetting war crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina will mark the final stage of 18 years of international efforts to adjudicate crimes committed during the breakup of Yugoslavia.

Why it matters: "The closure and ending of trials signifies an end of an era — one that was a turning point for international law and goes far beyond the former Yugoslavia," Iva Vukušić, a historian and genocide scholar at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, told Axios.

Driving the news: Jovica Stanišić, the former head of Serbian State Security, and Franko Simatović, his former deputy, were the last of more than 160 defendants tried in The Hague as part of the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). 

  • The case marked the first time that high-ranking wartime Serbian government officials had been convicted for crimes committed in Bosnia. Both were sentenced to 12 years and are appealing.
  • The prosecution also filed an appeal, asking that the scope of their convictions be expanded and their sentences increased.

The big picture: "The ICTY was the first post-Cold War UN tribunal and without it, we would not have seen efforts which led to the creation of the permanent International Criminal Court," says Vukušić, who expects the final trials to be wrapped up by 2023.

State of play: As to whether the UN trials were successful, Vukušić said this depends on what one defines as the court's job.

  • "If one has humbler goals — like individual responsibility for some important offenders, and fair trials, and some limited fact-finding — then it has been more successful than any other international court" in terms of the number of cases prosecuted, she said.
  • "We know what happened to victims, and communities, because of these trials," she continued. "This knowledge is crucial, to families and communities alike. These archives are precious to scholars."
  • "If one has more ambitious goals like reconciliation or a joint narrative, then it has largely failed," Vukušić said, adding that courts aren't an ideal venue for reconciliation efforts and that "history is by nature contested."

What's next: Although cases relating to genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes have wrapped up, the remaining trials of suspects will be delegated to national courts.

  • Yet few local governments in the Balkans have the appetite to deal with these thousands of remaining suspects.
  • In some cases, individuals suspected or even convicted of war crimes have run for public office.

The bottom line: Vukušić noted that after "any war" as long and brutal as the breakup of Yugoslavia, "most suspects won't be tried. That is the reality of it, there is no capacity, funding or resources to do it."

  • "The Syrians and victims of widespread atrocities across the world will find that out as well in the future.”
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