The wars in Bosnia and Croatia in the early 1990's were characterized by wide-scale attacks by soldiers and paramilitary forces against civilians. The death toll reached 250.000. There were over one million refugees and internally displaced people. While the war was still continuing in May 1993, the UN Security Council created the first international war crimes tribunal, charged with investigating and punishing individuals who committed war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. A recent VOA discussion of the 11-year old tribunal reviewed its success and failures and considered its future viability. Bojan Klima prepared this reported, voiced by Zlatica Hoke.
A 1993 United Nations report on war crimes committed in Bosnia cited evidence of mass killings and systematic rape, torture of prisoners, wholesale destruction of civilian homes and towns and violent dislocation of rival communal groups known as "ethnic cleansing." UN officials and human rights observers have noted that all the warring factions - Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats - were guilty of war crimes, though Serbs committed the largest number.
Since its establishment in 1993, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), based in the Hague, Netherlands, has tried dozens of war crimes suspects from obscure prison guards indicted for murder and rape to high army and police officials and one former head of state Slobodan Milosevic of Yugoslavia, who is charged with genocide and crimes against humanity.
The tribunal's authority is to prosecute and try war crimes as defined by 1949 Geneva Conventions, as well as crimes against humanity and genocide. Most of the charges are for war crimes, such as killing, rape and grave abuse of civilians or prisoners of war. However, several high political and military officials are charged with crimes against humanity and genocide.
About a hundred people have been indicted since 1993. About twenty have been convicted and more than 50 are still in custody, being tried or awaiting trails. The tribunal has also issued 20 arrest warrants against persons currently at large, including Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic. Both have been accused of genocide.
Individuals of all ethnic and national backgrounds have been investigated and prosecuted. Most of them are Serbs from Bosnia and Serbia. Others are Croats, Bosniaks and Albanians.
In addition to punishing war criminals, the tribunal's goal is to help restore peace and stability in the Balkans by promoting reconciliation among Bosniaks, Croats, Serbs and Kosovo Albanians.
Former ICTY prosecutor Mark Vlasic, one of the participants in the VOA discussion, says that this long-term aim is only partially achieved: "When I've made trips down to the Balkans, I've talked to numerous survivors and witnesses of mass atrocities. I think that there is a uniform concern that the process is slow and the number of people coming to the tribunal is not as large as they expected."
"Still," says Mr. Vlasic, "they are very pleased that there is a process that helps bring individuals to justice, especially a process that focuses on individuals as opposed to nationalities, because these crimes were committed by individuals and commanded by individuals, politicians who led the slaughter of thousand and thousands of people. And for people in the region, to see that people are being held accountable, I think it helps the reconciliation process."
Nina Bang Jensen, executive director of the Coalition for International Justice, a Washington-based non-governmental organization that lobbies for the prosecution of war crimes, says ICTY trials have also prevented the re-writing of history: "It is also intended to create an objective historical record. And that is extremely important in the Balkans."
"The perfect example is one of the Srebrenica cases where you had two plea agreements (by Bosnian Serbs) Nikolic and Obrenovic, says Ms Jensen. "They are remarkable and chilling and describing exactly what happened in Srebrenica, where seven thousand people - civilians, unarmed civilians - were killed in cold blood."
Ms Bang Jensen says just two or three years ago, Bosnian Serb authorities refused to accept the fact that the Srebrenica massacres occurred. Today, they know better, thanks to the tribunal's work.
But she adds, 19 Serbs from Bosnia and Serbia who were indicted for the massacre in Srebrenica are still at large: "Until these people go to the Hague, the rest of the world community is not going to welcome Serbia - as well as Croatia in the case of (fugitive former army general) Ante Gotovina - into its ranks."
In autumn of 1992, US Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger named a number of Serb politicians and military figures - including Karadzic and Mladic as ultimately responsible for war crimes committed by their subordinates.
At the VOA discussion, Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper, the US Department of State official for international war crimes prosecutions, called on the indicted war criminals still at large to "help their countries" by surrendering to the Hague: "My message to persons such as former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, former Bosnian Serb Army commander Ratko Mladic and former Croatian Army general Ante Gotovina, indicted for ethnic cleansing of Croatia's Serbs, is that if they care about their people, if they care about their country, if they are truly patriotic, they will take the patriotic step and surrender to the Hague, in order to open the doors of progress for their community."
Ambassador Prosper says local authorities in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia as well as in Kosovo should continue to cooperate with the tribunal as an international obligation: "There are a few steps that they can take that will cure the problems of the past and allow them to move into the future to resolve the war crimes issue once and for all."
"The policy of the United States of America," says Ambassador Prosper, "is to work with these governments and encourage them to do the right thing, to take these actions, but again they must recognize that it is their choice. If the states do not take the steps that are required, it will impact the future of these countries, their ability to move into Europe, to become members of Partnership for Peace and NATO."
In the Balkans, the ICTY is frequently criticized for moving too slowly and for a perceived political agenda and bias. Serbs say they provide too many of the people on trial in the Hague.
But Nina Bang Jensen notes that reflects the crimes committed: "There are more indictments of Serbs and Bosnian Serbs. But like it or not, there is more evidence of war crimes against Serbs and Bosnian Serbs. The media coverage of the Hague Tribunal in Serbia is very limited. It is still regrettably caught in some of the old views of the old nationalism. So people still think that there are NATO soldiers prosecuting cases in the Hague. However, this is the Tribunal that is funded by the United Nations and has employees from all over the world. It has top jurists from many countries. All these people could not be in on a single anti-Serb conspiracy. It just can't be."
Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper says, ICTY should limit prosecution to top officials, and let local courts in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia deal with lesser crimes. He says the Hague tribunal should wrap up its operations between 2008 and 2010.
Mark Vlasic, a former ICTY prosecutor, said the Hague trials are a valuable experiment in the international jurisprudence. "International law precedents regarding war crimes are rare. Our only model was anti-Nazi Nuremberg trial after the Second World War," says Mr. Vlasic.
Ambassador Pierre-Richard Prosper says ICTY trials of Balkans' war criminals influenced the US government's dealing with Saddam Hussein's Iraq: "You look at the (Slobodan) Milosevic trial, you look at the length of the trial, and one has to decide - 'you know what, there are maybe better ways going about this.' This is a long process, maybe too long and people who want to see justice, whatever the side of the equation they are on, deserve a quicker response, a quicker process. Regarding the situation in Iraq, that is one of the views that we had. Secondly, we believe that we need to support and encourage domestic prosecution."
Ambassador Prosper added that in contrast to the Balkans in the nineties, Iraqis have expressed the will to prosecute their fallen leader Saddam Hussein. "By their doing it, there is ownership of the rule of law that we planted, and the outcome will be accepted by the Iraqis. With the Hague Tribunal also, we want to see domestic prosecutions. We need to shift responsibility back to the states in the region. That is important because it promotes the rule of law locally."
The Voice of America's panel agreed that in the future there will be more locally based war crimes trials if there is the political will and legal ability to hold them. Otherwise, ad hoc Tribunals like ICTY will probably be established again by the UN Security Council to investigate and punish the war crimes and render justice for the victims.