June 16, 2004 | Commentary on National Security and Defense

Balkan Ghosts

So much as happened in the world since the Balkan Wars of the 1990s, that the international community seems to have lost sight of the fact that the wheels of justice are still turning to bring Serbian and Croatian war criminals to justice. Even as we have debated the worth of the International Criminal Court, actual prosecutions of real crimes against humanity in the former Yugoslavia have slipped from public view.

This week, Judge Theodor Meron, President of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, was in Washington for consultations and in New York to argue at the U.N. Security Council for continued full funding for bringing criminals to justice.

"What worries me is that the international community becomes blasé to the idea of the court. People get tired and they don't pay up their dues," he says. Judge Meron, a mild-mannered man, speaks with evident passion. As Holocaust survivor from Poland, erstwhile resident of Israel and a U.S. citizen, his deep commitment to see the tribunal to its rightful and just conclusion is highly understandable.

"After half a century of doing nothing, we have shown that credible trials are possible. We have created a body of war crimes jurisprudence as well as a body of procedural international law. This is an important legacy for the future."

As we have witnessed many other horrors in the intervening years, a reminder may be in order.

During the three years in the early 1990s the war that raged between Bosnians desiring independence and Serbs refusing to allow them to part from the former federation of Yugoslavia, resulted in horrendous war crimes committed by all sides. Detention camps sprung up, civilians were shelled, millions of people were driven from their homes, more than 20,000 women were systematically raped, 200,000 people were killed, and men of military age were murdered and buries in mass graves.

In Croatia, which had declared independence in 1991, Serbs attempted to keep control of the Vukovar region, bombarding the town for three months solid in 1992. Later Croatian troops swept through the Serb controlled region of Krajina, forcing tens of thousands of Croatian Serbs to flee from their homes towards Serbia proper.

In Kosovo, in 1999, President Milosevic of Serbia attempted yet another ethic cleansing campaign against the Albanian population there, burning houses, murdering residents to drive the population out and replace it with Serbs. After NATO finally intervened and bombed Serbia to stop this action, Albanian refugees came back and their leaders in turn drove 100,000 Kosovar Serbs from the province. Europe had not seen crimes against humanity like these since World War II.

With strong support from the United States, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was set up in 1993 by the U.N. Security Council. An ad hoc institution, it was later given jurisdiction over the prosecutions of the Rwandan genocide as well, an even more horrific event which took place approximately at the same time, costing over 1 million people their lives.

The Yugoslav and Rwandan tribunal is designed to go out of business when its work is done, which the United Nations has decided will be 2008. There is already a freeze on the hiring of law clerks, which according to Judge Meron is premature.

The highly publicized trial of former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic is only now entering the defense stage, which the accused insists on conducting himself. After 35 prosecutions and 17 guilty PLEAS, there are still 33 prosecutions pending and 20 wanted war criminals are still at large, mainly suspected of hiding in Serbia, including two of the most famous, Radovan Karadic and Ratko Mladic. And it's not just the suspects that are missing. According to Judge Meron, Belgrade continues to drag its feet on delivering documents and opening archives. This contrasts with the Bosnians and the Croats, who are largely cooperating with the tribunal.

Judge Meron has an idea for speeding things up. "I am going to propose in my monthly report to the Security Council that the future of prosecutions is in national courts. . . .I want to establish a special war crimes chamber at the court in Sarajevo to try people who had committed crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina." He would like to do the same for Croatia.

However, he says, "Belgrade has shown such a lack of cooperation that we cannot send accused Serbian war criminals back." The fact that the leader of the winning party in this weekend's Serbian elections, Vojislav Seselj, is one of the prisoners awaiting trial in the Hague does not bode particularly well for public sentiment among Serbs.

If we want to close the chapter on the Balkan wars properly, the tribunal's work must go on.

Helle Dale is director of Foreign Policy and Defense Studies at the Heritage Foundation. E-mail: helle.dale@heritage.org. Her column ordinarily appears on Wednesdays.

About the Author

Helle C. Dale Senior Fellow for Public Diplomacy
The Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom

First appeared in The Washington Times