Woman walks among gravestones near Srebrenica, Bosnia, 20 March 2016 (AP Photo/Amel Emric)

By Colin McIntyre

A 40-year jail sentence for genocide handed down to former Bosnian leader Radovan Karadžić last month draws a line under one of Europe’s darkest periods since the end of World War Two.

The case also brought into sharp focus the thorny issue of international justice for crimes against humanity and the systems set up to dispense it, which are still in the early stages of development.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) finally pinned down the man ultimately responsible for the massacre of more than 7,000 Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) in the town of Srebrenica and the deaths of an estimated 130,000 people in the former Yugoslav republic.

Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic at the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, 11 July 2013 (EPA/Michael Kooren/ Pool)

Radovan Karadžić at the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia, 11 July 2013 (EPA/Michael Kooren/Pool)

Karadžić was the most senior figure of the 161 people indicted by the tribunal, which was founded in 1993. It was the first international court dealing with war crimes since the Nuremberg trials of leading Nazis and military leaders after World War Two, and the first step towards establishing a global system of criminal justice.

The decision was hailed as a major achievement by chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz. “Moments like this should also remind us that in innumerable conflicts around the world today, millions of victims are now waiting for their own justice,” Brammertz said. “This judgement shows that it is possible to deliver it.”

Supporters argue that the court’s deliberations have produced a historical record of crimes committed over the period, with eye-witness testimony and forensic evidence for future generations. The age of impunity is over, they argue.

“In its precedent-setting decisions on genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, the Tribunal has shown that an individual’s senior position can no longer protect them from prosecution,” the ICTY says on its website.

Serbs accused the tribunal of dispensing victors’ justice.

But the court’s decision was attacked by Serbs who complained that the vast majority of convictions have been against them rather than against ethnic Croats and Bosniaks also involved in the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia.

Serbia accused the tribunal of handing out justice by the victors against the vanquished, one of the main complaints against the Nuremberg trials.


Radovan Karadžić before he was captured in 2008, while he was in hiding (AP Photo)

Critics have pointed out that the decisions of the tribunal in its 23-year history have done little to heal divisions in former Yugoslavia. Bosnian Serbs named a university dormitory after Karadžić.

The Yugoslavia tribunal was quickly followed in 1994 by a second “ad hoc” court set up to examine another dark episode — the slaughter of 800,000 Rwandans in a 100-day spell of tribal violence that same year — and a third established in 2002 to bring to account those behind a bloody civil war in Sierra Leone.

The two African tribunals have been wound up after identifying and convicting the main culprits in those events.

The Yugoslav tribunal is expected to end next year with the conviction of the last major figure, the general under Karadžić’s command whose forces carried out the massacre, Ratko Mladić.

The Rwandan tribunal was the first to convict a head of government.

The experiences and procedures of all three tribunals were used to establish the world’s first permanent body of justice, the International Criminal Court, set up in 2003.

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor during his trial 16 May 2012. (EPA/Evert-Jan Daniels/Pool)

Former Liberian President Charles Taylor during his trial, 16 May 2012. (EPA/Evert-Jan Daniels/Pool)

The three “ad hoc” tribunals in Europe and Africa, with their limited time-spans and agendas, are generally regarded as having had some success in bringing to justice those responsible for some of the worst crimes of the last century, although there has been widespread criticism of their cost.

The Rwanda tribunal handed down the first-ever sentence for genocide in 1998, to a former mayor, Jean-Paul Akeyesu. It was also the first international court to pass sentence on a head of government, former Rwandan Prime Minister Jean Kambanda, and the first to recognize rape as a means of perpetuating genocide.

The Sierra Leone court was the first to convict a head of state since Admiral Karl Doenitz, who was German president for three weeks after Adolf Hitler’s suicide in 1945. Former Liberian President Charles Taylor, who played a big part in the bloody war in Sierra Leone, is serving his 50-year sentence in Britain.

The court was also the first to convict for attacks against U.N. peacekeepers, for forced marriage as a crime against humanity and for recruitment of child soldiers.

“A long way from perfect, but better than nothing at all.”

But the International Criminal Court based in The Hague has been dogged by controversy from the start. Only 124 countries have ratified the Rome Treaty that set it up, leaving major powers including the United States, China and Russia as well as others such as India, Pakistan and Turkey outside the system.

The court has been widely criticized, particularly by the African Union, for its focus on Africa. In its 11-year history it has only brought charges against black Africans.

It has been unable to bring Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to the court on charges of genocide because some African countries refused to hand him over.

In another setback, the court had to drop charges against six Kenyan officials in connection with post-election violence in 2007 in which 1,300 people died, after allegations that witnesses had been intimidated.

As Britain’s Guardian newspaper commented after the Karadžić verdict:  “International justice is still a new idea. So far it is a long way from perfect. But it is still better than nothing at all.”


Colin McIntyre led coverage of the end of communism in Eastern Europe as Reuters chief correspondent in the region in the late 1980s. During 34 years at Reuters, he covered the last days of the Vietnam War and was posted to Indonesia, Ireland and London.

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