Transitional justice is a key component of rebuilding a society after conflict. It can punish perpetrators for their crimes, deter future crimes through fear of punishment, help families reconcile with the past and the crimes committed against family members. But at the same time, transitional justice is also surrounded by a lot of debate. How is justice adequately served in a post-conflict environment? Does “too much justice” cause a country to dwell on the past for too long? Is any form of punishment enough for a soldier that killed hundreds of civilians? How do you ensure that trials aren’t a sham and just for show?
For those of you unfamiliar with transitional justice in the former Yugoslavia, here is some background. Numerous atrocities were committed against civilians during the wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990’s. In order to prosecute perpetrators of war crimes, the United Nations Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993. ICTY has jurisdiction dating back to 1991 for all the territories of the former Yugoslavia. The four crimes that it can prosecute are grave breaches of the 1949 Geneva Conventions, violations of the laws or customs of war, genocide and crimes against humanity.
While the international community has generally deemed the ICTY as successful, an international tribunal is usually only one component of a country’s reconciliation with the past. Serbia has tried to further its own transitional justice by also establishing a Special Court for War Crimes in Belgrade, the country’s capital. While the ICTY prosecutes mainly high-level officials, the Special Court focuses on middle and low-level officials.
So far I have been able to attend two sessions of the Special Court in Belgrade. It’s definitely exciting that I’ve been able to view such an important component of transitional justice in former Yugoslavia. For now I will focus on the session I attended on Wednesday, June 10th. The session lasted about five hours and consisted of only one witness giving his testimony about events that took place in Zvornik in Eastern Bosnia. In June 1992, 700 Muslims, including women and children, were killed in Zvornik. Branko Papovic was the commander on trial for these crimes, while Dragutin Ilic was the witness providing testimony. Papovic had been a commander in the Yuglosav People’s Army (JNA) in Eastern Bosnia and Ilic took over for him in June 1992.
During the trial, Ilic was asked about the Batkovic concentration camp in Bosnia. His answer was pretty amusing as he claimed that he helped coordinate the camp in order to protect Muslims, rather than to execute them. Anyone that knows anything about the Holocaust or any one of the numerous genocides that have taken place in our sad history, knows that concentration camps are never used for people’s protection. His answer was enraging while at the same time humorous. Did he really think he would get off the hook by acting oblivious in such a silly way?
Ilic also said that the 700 Muslims that were killed in Zvornik must have been armed. Otherwise, the JNA would not have killed them. Again, we know that when victims include a large number of women and children as they did in Zvornik, they are generally considered to be a civilian population. Regardless, even the Muslim men in this situation were not armed, but instead murdered because of their identities. While Ilic was not the one on trial, he still lost any chance of getting sympathy from trial attendees because of the outrageous comments he made. If he had at least shown some honesty and remorse, we might be able to sympathize. But the fact that he continued to deny knowledge of these crimes, or tried to justify the JNA’s actions, just made him more abhorrent.
Another important aspect of the trial was that it was taking place 17 years after the crimes were allegedly committed. While justice delayed is better than no justice at all, it is sad that victims and their families have to wait so many years for justice to be served. To have to wait 17 years and to continually relive the evils committed against them is unfair. Here’s an example of why trials take so long: another witness was supposed to give testimony after Ilic, but due to time constraints, the judge rescheduled his testimony. While that’s not a big deal, it is a big deal that his testimony was postponed until September 7th! That’s about a three month delay for just one person’s testimony. I also worry about the accuracy of testimonies about events that took place so long ago.
Still, the Special Court is definitely a step in the right direction. While international courts like the ICTY are really important and help increase the legitimacy of international law, we need to help post-conflict countries become self-sufficient and develop domestic capabilities for adequate transitional justice.
However, implementing international and domestic courts is not enough for a country to move forward. In Serbia, there are many officials that were in power during Milosevic’s regime that are still in power now (for information on Milosevic, visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slobodan_Milo%C5%A1evi%C4%87). That’s a big problem that will not be solved by either the international or domestic court. Such officials need to be taken out of power in order for the country to truly move past its evils.
Posted By Simran Sachdev
Posted Jun 19th, 2009