Cautionary tales for the Mueller Probe from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia


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Photo by the National Archives and Records Administration

“I just can’t wait to hear the final report of the Mueller probe!”

Even those not normally interested in the intricate details of complex legal investigations have found themselves obsessed with the criminal investigation at the center of our nation’s political drama—the Special Counsel Investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, or the Mueller probe.

Both sides of the political aisle are awash with speculation about what the final report might reveal (and it’s probably as damning as whatever is in Donald Trump’s tax returns). Whatever you think it might disclose, we all seem convinced that the investigation will prove to the American public once and for all just what was going on during the 2016 election.

But international justice offers a cautionary tale about the ability of criminal justice mechanisms to draw a line in the sand about political events.

Very popular criminals 

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The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia



In 1993, the United Nations established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in order to try those most responsible for the crimes committed during the Balkans wars of the 1990s. In December 2017, it sentenced former Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladić, also known as “the Butcher of Bosnia,” to life imprisonment for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Justice, one might infer, had been served. Who could deny the atrocities now?

After the Mladić verdict, in Srebrenica—a town whose name became synonymous with the 1995 genocide—mayor : “Mladić will be remembered in history and this sentence only strengthens his myth among the Serb nation, which is grateful to him for saving it from persecution and extermination.” For a little less than half of the Bosnian population, Mladić is not a war criminal: he is a hero.

Denials about atrocities of the war are typical and commonplace in the Balkans, even of infamous events like Srebrenica. Despite 2.5 million pages of court transcripts, the ICTY’s findings are not always accepted as true among the people for whom it was established.

There are many theories about why Bosnians have not internalized the ICTY rulings. Some argue that the trials and the judgments were too lengthy, complicated and legalistic for people to understand—the court is located far away in The Hague and the proceedings are conducted in English and French. People in the former Yugoslav simply didn’t watch the trials or read the verdicts. Some point the finger at nationalist elites, politicians and journalists, who used confusion about the ICTY rulings for their own benefit. Still others point out that the defendants were allowed to hijack the trials and use them as political platforms, undermining the ICTY’s ability to communicate with the public.

But the truth was that being subjects of international indictments for war crimes did not really lessen the popularity of any of the Balkans leaders among their constituencies. Continue reading

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

By Belinda Cooper and Jennifer Trahan


The one part of our trip (see Parts I and II for prior travels) that participants are unlikely to forget is a day spent in and around the massacre site of Srebrenica, where 8,300 men and boys were executed in the days starting on July 11, 2005. As we drive to Srebrenica and admire the beautiful mountain scenery and picturesque small farms, it is hard to fathom how ethnic tensions reached that horrible nadir of inhumanity.

Memorial to Serb Victims

Our first visit brings home with great force the stark contrast between Muslim and Serb versions of historical truth—a central concern of transitional justice that most of our students have likely encountered only in the abstract until now. It involves a brief stop at the location of a mass atrocity: the Kravica warehouse, where an estimated 1,000–1,500 Bosnian Muslims were murdered. Because, at that point, we are deep in the territory of Republica Srpska, not a sign marks the spot. Indeed, last summer, the 20th anniversary of the massacre, this site of horror was covered with posters of Vladimir Putin, meant as an anti-EU protest and a call for Russia to veto an upcoming UN resolution on the Srebrenica genocide. By contrast to the lack of commemoration at this site, nearly across the street a large cross looms over a memorial to Serb victims of past wars. Our Bosnian guides always advise caution when we seek to photograph these sites, but last year, due to the tensions unleashed by the 20th anniversary commemorations, we were told not to even leave our bus.


Kravica Warehouse



Vladimir Putin posters in Republica Srpska



Memorial to Serb Victims


In Bratunac, we pass Hotel Fontana—the command headquarters of General Mladic, currently on trial in The Hague, who led the assault on Srebrenica. We have also been able to visit another memorial in Bratunac, this one to Serbs, mainly soldiers, killed around Srebrenica—a further disconcerting example of contrasting “truths” as well as denial on the part of perpetrator societies. The actual town of Srebrenica, where we stop for lunch, is so small that it is hard to imagine it swollen with 40,000 desperate Bosnian Muslim families seeking sanctuary in the so-called UN “safe haven,” which turned out to be neither “safe” nor a “haven.”


At the Potočari memorial (whose creation was mandated by the international community, since we are still in Republika Srpska, which would have created no such memorial), we lay a wreath to the victims and walk silently among the graves. In the battery factory where men and boys were separated from the women, we tour the memorial room, including the last effects of some of the victims, and read VRS (Army of Republika Srpska) wire intercepts regarding the disposal of “packages” (cynical code for bodies). The use of the word “genocide” throughout the memorial site brings home one powerful legacy of the ICTY: its determination that the massacre at Srebrenica met the legal definition of genocide. The preserved UN (“DUTCHBAT”) barracks, complete with the peacekeepers’ sometimes racist graffiti, provides a graphic reminder of the UN’s powerlessness to prevent that genocide.

As if our visit isn’t devastating enough, we listen spell-bound to a survivor of the column of men who tried to escape the Srebrenica executions by walking through miles of hostile territory. He was one of the few who made it to the Free Territory of Tuzla. We have also had the chance to meet with one of the “Mothers of Srebrenica” who lost all the male members of her family, including her two sons. She returned to Srebrenica, she says, unlike many other Muslims, in order to be reminded of her children by two trees planted in her front yard when they were small. At this point, there is hardly a dry eye in the room–and students begin to understand on a much more fundamental level what, exactly, we are seeking justice for.

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Visiting Srebrenica Almost Twenty Years Later

Srebrenica_massacre_memorial_gravestones_2009_1“As they grieve, so we grieve.”  -Remarks by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan on the Srebrenica genocide in a 2010 press release. 

After four months interning here, I had resolved to stay silent on many of the issues I encountered in Bosnia.  The internet is already flooded with opinions surrounding issues facing contemporary Bosnia, and I did not feel my thoughts would add anything productive to the discussion.

But then I visited Srebrenica.  I had been to the Hague, sat in on a hearing of Ratko Mladić, the so-called “Butcher of Bosnia,” and read thousands of pages of war crimes cases from the Bosnian State Court.  Further, I used my free time to imbibe in film and books that would help educate me about the war (you will note I say war and not conflict) in Bosnia.  Needless to say, I felt it was very important to understand the context surrounding Srebrenica before visiting the memorial site.

On July 6, 1995, the U.N. protected enclave of Srebrenica fell.  While the U.N. had declared the enclave of Srebrenica, in the Drina Valley of north-eastern Bosnia, a “safe area” in 1993, the Dutch soldiers station at Srebrenica, for a variety of reasons, were unable to enforce this “safe area.”  So, when a Serbian paramilitary unit called the “Scorpions,” and members of the Army of the Bosnian-Serb Republika Srpska, led by General Ratko Mladić, swept in to the valley of Srebrenica, the Blue Helmets had little choice but to surrender the Bosnian Muslim population that had sought refuge from the fighting, especially considering Mladić was holding some forty Dutch soldiers hostage.

Quickly, the Bosnian Serb troops put women and children on buses headed west to territory controlled by Bosnian Muslim forces.  In the following three days, over 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, mostly men and boys, were murdered.  After the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia declared the massacre at Srebrenica a genocide in the 2004 Prosecutor v. Krstić case, many often overlook that the forcible transfer of over 25,000 Bosnian Muslims also took place at the time of the massacre.

In 2005, on the ten-year anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan issued a press release on the Srebrenica genocide.  In this press release, Annan affirmed that, while primary responsibility for the terrible events that transpired at Srebrenica lies with the perpetrators themselves, that Srebrenica would forever remain a dark mark on the history of the UN.

Almost twenty years later, more than 6,000 of the Srebrenica victims have been identified and laid to rest.  The town of Srebrenica, once part of a thriving industrial valley, now boasts an almost 80% unemployment rate.  Understandably, Bosnian Muslims have, by in large, chosen not to return to the area.  While the municipality of Srebrenica is vast, town of Srebrenica itself is actually quite small (there are, literally, two streets), but at the top of hill at the end of a long road you can find some amazing natural springs of both iron and sulfur.

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