After 24 years, the Hague Tribunal (the more widely known name for the unwieldy International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia – ICTY) is scheduled to finish work in December.
Arguably on a high note, with convictions of the two top suspects – Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzić, convicted last year, and military commander Ratko Mladić, sentenced to life on Wednesday. (The bang, though, came after years of drawn-out trials and muddling through.)
There is some irony in the fact that, by the time the tribunal reached the grand finale, almost everyone, including the EU, has largely lost interest.
For a while in the previous decade, the ICTY provided considerable leverage in EU accession talks. Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte, who assessed the countries’ cooperation and then made recommendations to Brussels, was the most feared person in the Balkans.
Or it was the other way round, in the words of Paul Taylor, a senior fellow at Friends of Europe: “EU accession was the big lever used in a rather clumsy way to force the reluctant Balkan states to cooperate with the tribunal.”
The stick and carrot worked just fine, even though Croatia is to date the only one to achieve EU membership.
Its own accession talks were suspended in 2005, in the face of bad marks from del Ponte, until the country helped to locate its fugitive general Ante Gotovina. For the other countries, it was the same.
Kosovo’s Premier Ramush Haradinaj, a former guerilla commander, resigned and surrendered in 2005.
Serbia, keen to move on after a decade of international isolation, swiftly arrested and handed over its former leader Slobodan Milosevic, once the country’s most powerful man, in 2001. A number of top Yugoslav army brass surrendered voluntarily to face trial, including army chief General Dragoljub Ojdanic.
Belgrade’s progress towards the EU was then halted until its cooperation was deemed sufficient. Karadzic was arrested in Serbia in 2008. He had been working as a doctor under a false name, sporting a hilariously long silver beard and moustache.
Three years later, after another nudge from the tribunal, Serbia arrested Mladic, who had also lived under an alias in a small village in northern Serbia. After that, with all the suspects hauled in, the tribunal fell off the radar in Brussels and became largely irrelevant.
There is no doubt that without the tribunal, many if not most Balkans war crimes suspects would still walk free. There is also no doubt that the intention of the creators of the tribunal was to “create more of a historical record which will over time attenuate some of these conflicts,” said Taylor, who had covered most of the Yugoslav wars for Reuters.
“The questions remain: has the tribunal contributed to establishing a more factual record of the conflict and of the crimes committed, which will over time lead to peace and reconciliation? Has it helped to delegitimise the nationalist propaganda and the slanted historical narratives?” he wondered.
The jury is still out on this. Croatia’s Jutarnji List daily said after the Mladic verdict that the ICTY has “set some new standards thanks to which political and military leaders in any future war will have to keep in mind that they will eventually face justice. The history of this part of Europe cannot be written without accepting the tribunal’s role”.
But in Bosnia, 20 years after the war, history schoolbooks still shy away from the recent past. They go as far as 1991, the year Yugoslavia broke up. In Serbian schools, there is little mention of the Yugoslav wars and even less of Belgrade’s role in them.
The fact that the ICTY is disliked and denounced as a political tool across the Balkans probably confirms that it had indeed taken aim at everyone involved.
The problem with the ICTY is that many people, and particularly the people of the Balkans, have probably placed too much hope in it, expecting that it will set the record straight, provide justice for the victims and help foster reconciliation, as if by magic.
And on this count, it failed as reconciliation remains almost as elusive as it was two decades ago.
Even Croatia, arguably the most advanced of the ex-Yugoslav states, barring Slovenia, still has a big chip on its shoulder.
Only last week, President Kolinda Grabar Kitarović visited the eastern town of Vukovar, overrun by Yugoslav and Serb troops in 1991, and said:
“I have said several times that a lot of water will flow down the Danube before Croatia and Serbia can say they are friends”.
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