Learning About International Justice on the Ground—The Balkans & War Crimes (Part II)

By Belinda Cooper and Jennifer Trahan


After experiencing the Hague tribunals (see Part I of this post), we travel to the region itself, starting in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina—the city that was besieged from 1992-1995. From the moment we arrive and begin to pass buildings covered in bullet holes, students are confronted directly with the reality of a conflict that ended barely 20 years ago. Interaction with survivors of that conflict begins almost immediately: the guide who tells us about the tunnel under the airport that was used to bring in supplies during the siege was involved in building it; the staff at the hotel we stay in, as well as many people we meet in interviews and casual conversation, lived through the siege and lost family members during it. These discussions and conversations heighten the impact of our more official meetings.


Professor Cooper at a building in Sarajevo with bullet holes



International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP)


We visit the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP), which conducts forensic analysis to identify persons killed in the war. Visiting the DNA labs is always fascinating in itself, but we are particularly interested in the crucial role forensics plays in both international and transitional justice. Where private individuals and government officials deny or minimize the number of people killed at Srebrenica, forensic proof of the number of victims and how they were killed becomes a crucial component of criminal trials, as well as one way of establishing the truth and combatting denial. Also, for families whose loved ones went missing, return of the bodies for burial is critical in seeking some level of closure.

Our visit to the ICMP, as well as meetings with other NGO representatives, leave students feeling that much positive work is being done in Bosnia. But they are very quickly confronted with fundamental political problems that defy solution. In our meetings with journalists, academics, survivors, and ordinary people, we hear repeatedly that Bosnia is not a functional state—that it is mired in the regime created by the Dayton Peace Accords, which was never meant as a permanent solution. The two entities that comprise the state—the Muslim and Croat “Federation” and Republika Srpska—coexist uneasily, with very little sense of unity. The pessimism this creates extends to the existing mechanisms of international justice, which were once heralded as at least a partial solution to the region’s problems.

Thus we encounter great skepticism about the ICTY and its role in the region on the part of Bosniaks, who were the main victims of the war. After seeing the courts in The Hague, meeting their committed staff, and learning about their achievements, it can be disconcerting to discover how deeply the hopes they once raised have been disappointed. From our perspective as professors, however, it is very useful for the students to be so directly confronted with the limits of international justice and perhaps take away some important lessons for the future. Importantly, too, despite the often pessimistic and critical responses, no one has suggested that the region would be better off without the ICTY. Those we speak with may be frustrated that the ICTY has not proved to be a panacea for all the region’s ills—for instance, it cannot try a low-level perpetrator who may still live down the block—but ultimately, they admit that things would be far worse had the ICTY never existed.

National war crimes courts are both a legacy of, and a supplement to, the work of the ICTY, but they also have their weaknesses. When we visit the State Court—the hybrid chamber in Bosnia adjudicating war crimes cases—and find that witnesses still require protection, or hear about the procedural failings of more local war crimes trials, we are reminded that ethnic tensions persist and that the search for justice, 20 years after the end of the conflict, still leaves much to be desired.

Meetings with civil society groups round out our experience in Sarajevo. We are always particularly glad to make a stop at a women’s collective run by war victims, who seek companionship and a small income by coming together to produce handmade crafts that we appreciatively purchase. These women, many of whom were held in “rape camps” during the war, receive little or no support from the state. While their resilience is humbling, their impressions of both the war crimes courts—international and national—and the state of transition in Bosnia underscore the pessimism we frequently encounter among survivors.

The town of Sarajevo is filled with history, both older and more recent, all of which is important in understanding its current situation. We visit the site opposite the Latin Bridge where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated, the eternal flame to Bosnian victims of WWII, and memorials to the horrors of the 1992-1995 siege, including the children’s memorial, the site of the marketplace massacre, and the “Sarajevo roses” (throughout the city, these mark locations where people were killed by mortar shells; the indentations have been filled in with red resin in roughly the shape of a rose).   Memorialization and historical memory are key aspects of transitional justice, and these memorials to Sarajevo’s suffering form a backdrop to our upcoming encounter with the very different views of the recent past in Republika Srpska and Serbia.


Children’s memorial in Sarajevo



Marketplace in Sarajevo



Sarajevo “rose”

We’ve learned over the years that our students’ intense encounter with the region’s violent recent history must be balanced with time to experience the positive aspects of Sarajevo today. It is a beautiful city, and we ensure that students have a chance to enjoy the old town, where they can shop and sample Bosnian food, sometimes overlooking the beautiful Miljacka river, and enjoy sunset over the city.


Sunset over Sarajevo overlooking the Miljacka river


(To learn of our further travels, stay tuned for Part III of this post.)

2 thoughts on “Learning About International Justice on the Ground—The Balkans & War Crimes (Part II)

  1. Pingback: Learning About International Justice on the Ground—The Balkans & War Crimes (Part I) « IntLawGrrls

  2. As a respectable blog I follow diligently, I am surprised with the lack of depth in this text. “The two entities that comprise the state—the Muslim and Croat “Federation” and Republika Srpska”. I assume you refer to Bosniaks and not Muslims. Also who lives in the Republika Srpska? And even if you correct this part, statement is still very simplified.

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