By Aryeh Neier
Military and guerrilla leaders, Presidents know they could face justice for crimes against humanity
When the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was established by the United Nations Security Council 20 years ago, on May 25, 1993, many regarded it as a meaningless gesture.
At the time, the war in Bosnia was already more than a year old; the city of Sarajevo was under siege; tens of thousands of civilian noncombatants had already died; and hundreds of thousands had been forcibly displaced.
The Bosnian Serbs – and their supporters in Serbia – seemed to be winning the war, while the UN made no provision for taking into custody those charged with ordering or carrying out atrocities. Indeed, some saw the creation of the ICTY as a poor substitute for the military intervention that was needed to halt the slaughter.
For a long time, that cynical response seemed to be justified. The ICTY was slow in getting off the ground. It took the UN 14 months to appoint a chief prosecutor. Another year passed before his office issued indictments against high-ranking figures responsible for major crimes. By then, the massacre of about 8,000 Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica, the largest mass killing in Europe since World War II, had already taken place.
But, though some aspects of the ICTY’s performance merit criticism, its overall performance and achievements over the last two decades have made it a great success. That success is twofold: the tribunal’s achievements with respect to the former Yugoslavia, and its impact worldwide on ending impunity for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.
As for the former Yugoslavia, the ICTY eventually obtained custody of all whom it indicted, except those who died in the interim. It has conducted fair trials and has provided a meaningful appellate process that has led to significant convictions and equally significant acquittals.
Its work has paved the way for the establishment of local courts in Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia that have supplemented its work. By now, hundreds of those responsible for atrocities in the former Yugoslavia in the wars of the 1990’s have been held accountable and have served – or are still serving – judicially ordered prison sentences.
The impact of the ICTY worldwide has been multifaceted. It has fostered the establishment of additional ad hoc international criminal courts with jurisdiction over such countries as Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Cambodia, and Lebanon.
It also provided impetus to the establishment of the International Criminal Court, while encouraging prosecutors in many countries to charge senior officials and guerrilla leaders for war crimes and bring them to trial in national courts.
The recent trial and conviction, in a national court, of former Guatemalan President General Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity is only the latest blow against the impunity that previously protected high officials responsible for atrocities.
Though the conviction has since been overturned by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, Ríos Montt joins dozens of former heads of state and government leaders who have been prosecuted for gross abuses of human rights since the ICTY was established.
But, despite the achievements of the past 20 years, the movement for international justice is still in its infancy. Inevitably, mistakes have been made. Even so, the 20th anniversary of the establishment of the ICTY is worth celebrating, because the movement it has led has forced military commanders, guerrilla leaders, and heads of state around the world to take into account the possibility that they will face justice if crimes against humanity are committed on their watch.
To that extent, the ICTY has done more than bring a measure of justice to victims and survivors in the former Yugoslavia. It has also contributed to the prevention of injustice in contexts far removed from the Balkans.
Aryeh Neier, President Emeritus of the Open Society Foundations and a founder of Human Rights Watch, is the author of Taking Liberties: Four Decades in the Struggle for Rights.