When Elizabeth Odio Benito and her fellow judges first arrived in The Hague to work at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, they didn't have a courtroom or rules to guide their work. They didn't even have robes.
“What we did have was a great, great commitment,” Odio Benito said.
As atrocities continued unabated, the judges began hammering out the legal framework for a groundbreaking United Nations court that wound up meting out justice for nearly a quarter of a century, prosecuting and sentencing some of the top military and civilian leaders from the devastating wars that tore apart the Balkans in the 1990s.
Now the tribunal is finally closing its doors, with a ceremony in The Hague marking the milestone Thursday attended by Dutch King Willem Alexander and U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. It is lauded by many for bringing a measure of justice to the region and making important contributions to the development of international law, but it still arouses fury in parts of the Balkans and its findings have failed to stem widespread denial of crimes there.
One of the last images in 24 years of courtroom drama will undoubtedly be one of the most enduring: Croat Gen. Slobodan Praljak, seconds after his convictions were upheld on appeal last month, declaring that he was not a war criminal and drinking from a vial he said contained poison. He died a short time later, joining a list of suspects that includes former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic who died in the court's custody before his trial ended.
Some still viewed as heroes at home
Praljak's death and adulation in parts of Croatia by people who consider him a war hero, not a criminal, highlighted the deep-rooted skepticism among nationalists in Croatia and Serbia toward a court they angrily claim was set up by NATO to mete out victor's justice.
Some war criminals released after serving their sentences have been welcomed home as heroes. Gen. Vladimir Lazarevic, who was sentenced to 14 years for atrocities committed by Serb troops in Kosovo during the 1998-99 violence that left over 10,000 people dead, was invited by Serbia's defense minister to teach at the country's military academy.
Some victims say it took too long to deliver justice and legal scholars agree that some of the indictments were unwieldy and too broad - Milosevic, the man accused of being the driving force behind the Balkan wars, died in his cell in 2006 before judges could reach verdicts.
But elsewhere the court is considered a success, credited with key legal judgments on genocide and sexual violence against women in wartime and other advances in international law, and with ending a culture of impunity for military commanders and their political masters.
The court - the first of its kind since the post-World War II trials in Nuremberg and Tokyo - indicted 161 suspects, convicted and sentenced 90 of them, acquitted 19, sent 13 to local courts to prosecute and withdrew proceedings against 37. Two Serbs are being retried by a U.N. mechanism set up to handle appeals and other legal questions after the tribunal closes.
Unlike its sister tribunal that prosecuted crimes committed during Rwanda's genocide, the Yugoslav court has no fugitives on the run. Eight of the 90 suspects indicted by the Rwanda tribunal are still at large.
Success, but ‘book is not closed’
Part of the reason the Yugoslav court is now considered a success is that it ultimately managed to bring to justice two men considered the architects of the worst atrocities of the 1992-95 Bosnian war that left 100,000 dead - Bosnian Serb military chief Gen. Ratko Mladic and his political master Radovan Karadzic.
Both men spent years on the run before finally being arrested and put on trial. Both were convicted of genocide in the 1995 massacre of some 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in the eastern enclave of Srebrenica and of other crimes including overseeing the deadly campaign of shelling and sniping during the siege of Sarajevo. They are both appealing their convictions.
What the court did not manage to do was convict senior Serbs from Belgrade of complicity in crimes in Bosnia, although the retrial of Serbs Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic tackles that issue.
“My hope is that the book is not closed on judicial accountability for Serbian complicity out of Belgrade and my hope also is that historians will continue to examine that issue as thoroughly as possible,” said David Scheffer, former U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes issues and now a law professor at Northwestern University.
Lord Paddy Ashdown, a former High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, said he experienced firsthand the power of the court when he spoke to Serb artillery commanders in Kosovo.
“The Serb artillery commanders were more frightened of being indicted by the Hague tribunal than they were of being bombed by NATO,” Ashdown told a conference in The Hague that discussed the court and its legacy.
Ashdown, who testified in three trials at the tribunal, is convinced the court's positive legacy will reach into the future. It already is seen as a key stepping stone toward the establishment of the International Criminal Court, which also is based in The Hague.
“If you establish a system of justice, it not only brings to justice those who committed crimes, it also conditions and shapes the activities of those who are capable of committing crimes at a time of war,” he said. “That's the way you have begun to change the climate in which this appalling human madness of warfare takes place, and that is no small achievement.”