The Morbid End of a Pathbreaking Institution: Justice and Suicide at the ICTY

Peace and security

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A short summary on the success or failure of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia. What remains from almost a quarter of a century of prosecuting war crimes in Ex-Yugoslavia and how the accused rejects their sentence.

Dramatic scenes in the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia: The former general of the Bosnian Croat army, Slobodan Praljak, shouted out his innocence and drank poison while his sentence was being delivered. This radical rejection of the verdict casts a shadow over the UN Tribunal, only weeks before its chambers will close for good. The aim of the ICTY, created as a reaction to the mass atrocities that happened during the conflict in the Balkans, was to bring justice to the victims, deter future crimes and support a peaceful reconciliation. Has the Tribunal lived up to these goals?

24 years after its establishment, the court has prosecuted over 150 individuals and concluded 84 guilty verdicts, of which one committed suicide during his judgement.

The ICTY is for many a groundbreaking institution that paved the path for many other international criminal Tribunals (Rwanda, Cambodia etc.) and the International Criminal Court, bringing justice to the gravest international crimes. Particularly its stance on and inclusion of sexual violence as a war crime, as well as the prosecution of political leaders and high military commanders (such as the former Croat and Serbian prime-ministers, Tudjmann and Milosević, although they died before, respectively during the processes) demonstrated the willingness of the Tribunal to hold the responsible, especially at the high level accountable.

The crimes under investigation concerned mostly those committed by ethnic Croats or Serbs against the primarily muslim Bosnian population. No surprise that the decisions resulted in criticism and rejections among these ethnical fault lines.

The latest and last cases of the ICTY, the conviction of the Bosnian Serb Mladić and the conviction and suicide of Praljak, show that the jurisprudence is widely perceived as being political and directed against certain nationalities.

Especially in Croatia, politicians’ reactions to the verdict remain highly rejective. Official statements claim Praljak’s suicide to be an act of heroism and rejection of the injustice done to him, the Croatian people and their history. Precisely because the facts of the Case against Praljak and 5 others indicate a broader involvement of Croatia in war crimes and ethnic cleansing against the Bosniak population. Similarly concerning is that public persons, such as opposition politicians and journalists are receiving death threats for being supportive of the verdict. Particularly visible is the divide in the Bosnian town Mostar, which Praljaks forces besieged and destroyed a historic bridge in. Inhabited by Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Muslims, the reactions were diametric.

Reactions by Serbian PM Vučić were less extreme, while Bosnian Serbs living around Srebrenica still celebrate Mladić as their hero, despite being convicted of genocide.

The moderate character of Serbia’s official response may be connected partly to its EU membership candidacy, recalling that Croatia’s advancement was linked to cooperation with the Tribunal back in the mid-2000s.

The work of the ICTY in bringing justice and reconciliation to the regions is miscellaneous. The dispensation of justice is the most neutral form of recreating history and bringing justice. It is hard to combine highly emotional situations and the dry procedural character of law. The emotions sparked by these cases among big parts of the populations of the region are easily used and capitalized by politics, the same way politics can also trigger these emotions for their own use. These effects were increased by the theatrical orchestration of Praljak’s suicide. The law has spoken, and the political leader’s duty is to ensure its acceptance and prevent a resurrection of ethnical tensions which led to the Tribunal in the first place.