The Balkans on the North Sea
Over het Joegoslavië-tribunaal, over recht en onrecht
The Yugoslavia tribunal, justice and injustice
In the summer of 1992 television images were broadcast of emaciated men behind barbed wire, Bosnian Muslims held prisoner by Bosnian Serbs. Western politicians expressed shock, but no one sent troops to the Balkans to end the ghastly war. Instead a UN tribunal was established in The Hague to try war criminals, modelled on the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals of 1946.
Was the Hague tribunal established simply to ease the embarrassment of the West? The court certainly made little impression on the war criminals. More than a year after judges and prosecutors began their work, seven thousand Muslims were murdered in the Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica. ‘We failed miserably,’ the former president of the tribunal, Antonio Cassese, admitted.
Journalists Cees Banning and Petra de Koning paint an intriguing portrait of the people who decided, shortly after fighting began, that a tribunal would be needed. They describe how the court became a reality and explain the investigative strategy and its consequences. Right from the start, prosecutors decided not to go after the most prominent political and military leaders but to concentrate on camp guards and army and police reservists, the ‘small fry’ who were easy to catch.
Could prosecutors have taken a different approach? The UN had very little money for war crimes trials and several years went by before NATO troops in Bosnia began arresting suspects. As soon as more prominent politicians and army officers did start to arrive in The Hague, former President of Yugoslavia Slobodan Milosevic among them, UN officials and Western politicians – especially American politicians – said the trials should be brought to a swift conclusion. The process had never been intended to last ‘indefinitely’.
The authors have interviewed more than seventy employees and ex-employees of the UN court and spoken to politicians, lawyers and civil servants. They travelled to Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo to talk to victims and their families. The inside information they gathered enables them to offer animated descriptions not only of the people on trial but of those who struggled year after year to ensure the continued existence of the tribunal. A number of successful prosecutions resulted and several important contributions were made to the development of international law, but there were mistakes as well, leading to verdicts that were ultimately unsatisfactory.
The Balkans on the North Sea is a fascinating story of justice, guilt, violence and regret.