At the end of 2017, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) closed with a bang. Within weeks of shutting down, the Trial Chamber found former Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladić—the Butcher of Bosnia—guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity. Shortly thereafter, the Appeals Chamber affirmed almost all of the convictions of six former Croatian officials in Prosecutor v. Jadranko Prlić et al. As Presiding Judge Carmel Agius rendered the verdict, one of the six defendants—Slobodan Praljak—drank a vial of poison and subsequently died. This blog post will explore key aspects of the ICTY’s history that shed insight into why these events were both so momentous and controversial. In so doing, it offers a reflection on what the ICTY’s final months might mean for Southeast Europe moving forward. Ultimately, the debates the ICTY has helped fuel constitute one of its most important legacies.
The UN Security Council established the ICTY almost 25 years ago to prosecute persons responsible for serious IHL violations committed in the territory of the former Yugoslavia. At the time, the Croatian and Bosnian Wars were ravaging the former Yugoslavia. Hostilities broke out just after citizens in Croatia and then Bosnia voted for independence. Ethnic Serbs rebelled, preferring to remain within Yugoslavia where they had enjoyed substantial privileges. The fighting in Bosnia—which the ICTY’s final judgments addressed—proved especially deadly. Bosnian Serb forces, with support from Serbia, quickly secured control of 60 percent of the country. Bosnian Croat forces, with support from the Croatian government, also rebelled. Civilians of all ethnicities were caught in the middle, suffering horrific violence.
The ICTY indicted Ratko Mladić just months before the Bosnian War ended. Following hostilities, Mladić fled to Belgrade. Serb authorities subsequently shielded him from prosecution for almost 16 years. Mladić proved even more adept at evading arrest than Serbian President Slobodan Milošević, who landed in the dock a decade earlier. The fact that the ICTY eventually succeeded in apprehending high-level leaders like Mladić was a real accomplishment that not even the most avid supporters of the Tribunal thought would happen.
Once in The Hague, Mladić faced a long list of 11 charges, including two counts of genocide, five counts of crimes against humanity, and four counts of violations of the laws or customs of war. In 2017, Mladić was convicted of almost all charges, receiving a life sentence. Among other things, the ICTY’s judgment established that Mladić played a key role in the Srebrenica genocide, as well as in the Siege of Sarajevo, which left more than 10,000 people dead.
Reactions to Mladić’s conviction were mixed, particularly in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH) and Serbia. Many victims, relatives, and regional activists welcomed the judgment. However, some victims’ groups, including the Mothers of Srebrenica, called for a harsher sentence. Serb nationalists rejected the conviction, continuing to recognize Mladić as a hero.
After the Mladić judgment, the ICTY handed down its appeal judgment in Prlić et al. In May 2013, the ICTY Trial Chamber convicted Jadranko Prlić and five co-defendants of crimes against humanity, violations of the laws or customs of war, and grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, committed in the context of the Bosnian War. Each of the six defendants occupied a high-level position among the predominately Bosnian Croat forces that fought in the Bosnian War. Crucially, the judgment established that they, along with top Croatian government officials (including President Franjo Tudjman), formed a part of a joint criminal enterprise that pursued the establishment of a Croat-only part of BiH, which they hoped to join with Croatia. In its final judgment, the Appeals Chamber upheld this and many other earlier convictions. Praljak’s dramatic suicide occurred halfway through the reading of the appeals judgment.
Reactions to the judgments in Prlić et al were also mixed. In Croatia, Prime Minister Andrej Plenković portrayed the judgment as a “deep moral injustice.” President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović also vehemently rejected the Tribunal’s findings on Croatia’s role in the Bosnian War. However, MPs from the opposition Civil Liberal Alliance argued that the judgments rightfully condemned those who carried out bad policies towards Bosnia in the 1990s. Meanwhile, while many Bosnian Muslim victims were “disgusted” that Praljak was able to commit suicide, some also welcomed the evidence that came to light as a result of the verdict.
What is again clear from this brief survey of regional reactions is that, at the very least, the ICTY’s judgments have intensified debate about the Yugoslav Wars. The ICTY’s judgments have also provided concrete evidence for survivors and advocates to use in their efforts to challenge ongoing denial surrounding the atrocities that occurred. In particular, beyond victim testimonies, the Tribunal secured numerous wartime records. Notable among them is a direct order from Praljak to his subordinates “to sort out the situation in Vares showing no mercy to anyone,” using men who were “up to the tasks”.
War crimes tribunals are not silver bullets for addressing legacies of mass violence. They face significant challenges, ranging from a reliance on states to apprehend suspects to complicated sentencing procedures that will inevitably fall short of satisfying many survivors. Post-conflict societies also face challenges in overcoming denial. While the ICTY remains a highly controversial institution, it has nonetheless succeeded in passing judgment on over 100 individuals, including top leaders. The Tribunal has also amassed a tremendous trove of documents and testimonies, which are publicly available. Both the ICTY’s judgments and legal library constitute one of its most important legacies. In the words of Justice Robert Jackson, the ICTY has provided “undeniable proofs of incredible events.” It is now up to those who remain to continue the debates that the ICTY’s final judgments helped to intensify.