Presumption of guilt: why did the Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia fail?


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The war with the criminal regime, a squadron of combat aircraft, bombing, victory of the good guys and the trial of the bad. That’s what the situation around the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia looked like. At least at the end of the last century. It looks completely different now.

The International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia was established on May 25, 1993, by a resolution of the UN Security Council. The conflict in the heart of Europe could not go unnoticed by the international community. The establishment of a body that could hold accountable those responsible for massacres and human rights violations was indeed necessary. All the more odd that a tribunal looks like. The UN Security Council does not even have judicial powers. However, the resolution on the establishment of the tribunal refers to Chapter VII of the UN Charter, which does not refer to international courts. Despite all this, the tribunal was established with the participation of the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia.

Did it stop the bloodshed in the Balkans? No. The Bosnian war continued and was accompanied by ethnic cleansing by both Serbs and Croats with Muslims. It’s still unknown how many people died in that war. Thousands of people are missing, and the number of those killed according to various sources ranges from 70 to 200 thousand people. The conflict ended only after NATO intervention. The signing of the Dayton Accords in 1995 allowed Bosnia to gain independence. The fate of Yugoslavia had already been decided.

In 1999, NATO again intervened in the Balkan conflict, now on the side of the Albanian rebels in Kosovo. Operation Allied Force lasted from March 24 to June 10. During this time planes of the alliance countries made 38 thousand combat flights. As a result of the bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, over 1,700 civilians were killed, in particular almost 400 children. This is how the Kosovo war ended.

An international tribunal could have contributed to that. A show trial of some criminals could have tamed others. However, the tribunal was strongly influenced by the US. Attempts to present it as a truly independent body were in vain. It was enough to see who was more likely to find himself in the dock.

Over the years, the ICTY has brought charges against 161 people. Over 60 per cent of them were Serbs, 20 per cent Croatians, and Muslims had not been touched. This is despite the fact that crimes were committed by all parties to the conflict. The statistics on acquittals are also indicative. Only 4 Serbs were acquitted – that is 5% of the total number of defendants, taking into account the deaths during the trial. Accusations were dropped from 4 Albanians, but here we are talking about 66 per cent. Also 12 Croats were acquitted – a quarter of all the defendants.

Ratko Mladić’s sentence can be considered the most loudest. He was the head of the Army Corps of Republika Srpska in Drinj and in 2017 was sentenced to life imprisonment. He was charged with the murder of 8,000 Muslims in Srebrenica in July 2015, although soldiers of the Dutch contingent of UN peacekeeping troops who were responsible for the safety of civilians denied aggression by the military.

It should be noted that various studies confirmed the death of people in the Bosnian city. Only the number of victims was more than 8 times less. In this regard, some experts believe that the figures were deliberately overestimated, as the tragedy in Srebrenica began to be replicated as the apogee of Serbian arbitrariness.

But those who did not wait for the verdict were the former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic. He was not the only one who died during the years of the trials, but his death caused a serious resonance. True, the resonance could have been even greater. To date, there is reason to believe that there was nothing to hold Milosevic accountable, and the released politician could have called into question all the activities of the ICTY. As a result, Milosevic died on March 11, 2006. The official reason was myocardial infarction. The politician indeed repeatedly complained about heart problems and even asked to let him go for treatment. The court denied him, actually sentencing him to death in prison without proper medical care.

The Tribunal ceased to exist in 2017. How fair was it? The answer came in late June, when the Specialized Office of the Kosovo Prosecutor accused Kosovo President Hashim Thaçi of numerous murders and torture during the war. There is a lot of evidence, and it was collected while the ICTY existed.

There is now a political struggle around Kosovo that fully explains the prosecutors’ verdict. But that’s another story. Our story ends with the Tribunal knowing very well what the Albanians were doing, but covering or justifying them. It was not for nothing that former Canadian Ambassador to Yugoslavia James Bisset called the ICTY “an instrument of American politics in the Balkans”. And Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor of the UN International Tribunal, only recognized in her memoirs how unfair the sentences of the ICTY were.


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