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Europe

Hague tribunal helps 'get to truth' of Balkan wars

For the past 20 years, a special tribunal has tried to prosecute war crimes linked to the Balkan conflict. Not all the accused have been sentenced. But many say the court has broken new ground in investigating wars.

The ICTY building in The Hague

The ICTY in The Hague is a UN body and was set up in 1993

"The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is really the worst court," Mirko Klarin said. "Well, apart from all the others that are even worse."

It's a joke and one that Klarin, a journalist, can well afford to make. He's an expert on the ICTY (the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia) and has observed all the proceedings and trials related to serious crimes committed during the Balkan wars between 1991 and 1999.

Speaking seriously, though, Klarin says the special court, set up in 1993, has done an admirable job given the magnitude of its task. "The tribunal isn't perfect. But it's the best we have."

The tribunal was the first international body for the prosecution of war crimes since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials held in the aftermath of World War II.

Klarin, who works for news agency SENSE, which has specialized in reporting on the work of the ICTY, says the special court has played a big role in shedding light on crucial events during the wars in the Balkans.

"Without the trials, we would not have learned the truth until today," he said.

Trials ongoing

On Monday this week, the court began trying two men linked to the conflicts that accompanied the breakup of Yugoslavia.

One was Goran Hadzic, the last of 161 suspects still alive and at large after the wars. He was arrested last year in Serbia.

Hadzic was president of the self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina from 1992-94. Krajina is part of Croatia, and Hadzic is considered responsible for killings and forced expulsions of minority ethnic Croats from the region after the Croatian government in Zagreb broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991.

Hadzic is accused by the ICTY of murder, torture and forcible deportation.

Bosnian Muslim men carry coffins of their relatives during a mass funeral for Srebrenica victims

Karadzic is charged with the Srebrenica massacre

In the second case, the court has been hearing the opening arguments of the defense in the trial of the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. The trial began in 2009.

Karadzic faces charges of genocide and crimes against humanity during the 1992-1995 Bosnia war, including the Srebrenica massacre.

More than 7,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys were killed at Srebrenica in 1995 in a UN-protected zone.

Karadzic, who is carrying out his own defense, denied on Monday that he was guilty of the killings in Srebenica.

Pieces of the puzzle

But experts say it isn't just high-profile trials like Karadzic's that are crucial.

"Each of these cases is important," said Klarin. Since 1993, the court has indicted and taken action against more than 60 accused. 35 trials are still ongoing while 12 individuals were acquitted.

One of the more famous cases was the trial against former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic.

Milosevic died of a heart attack in the tribunal's detention unit in 2006 while on trial before he was sentenced. He was no exception. The court failed to sentence other suspects, Slavko Dokmanovic, Dorde Dukic, Janko Bobetko and a few others, who died before their trials concluded.

But with each case, further documents are reviewed and eye witnesses interviewed, experts say. That has helped to fit the pieces of the puzzle together to give a more complete picture of the conflict between Bosnians, Croats, Serbs and between Orthodox and Catholic Christians and Muslims that ripped apart the Balkans in the 1990s.

"One of the successes is that the special tribunal has tried to shed light on and tackle the Yugoslavia conflict as a whole," Stephanie Dufner, an expert on international law at Amnesty International said. "It wasn't just Serbs who were prosecuted but also Croatians and members of other involved parties."

Lessons learned

Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic

Karadzic is insisting he's a 'mild, tolerant man'

But Dufner pointed out that the action taken by the ICTY had to go beyond the sentences it had handed out so far, ranging from three years to life imprisonment,

"That's just a first step. The prosecution of human rights violations must continue in the individual countries too," Dufner said.

That's already taking place, according to Croatian-born Mirko Klarin.

"The justice systems in Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia were reformed so that these countries can prosecute war crimes themselves," he said.

"That's especially important for the victims because the ICTY can't offer direct compensation," he added.

According to Dufner, the International Criminal Court (ICC) at The Hague has already drawn lessons from that. Set up in 2002, the ICC is meant to be a permanent institution to prosecute war crimes, but, she points out, "It now has a compensation fund for victims."

Beyond the media glare

Experts say there's another clear advantage in holding local trials in individual countries on a smaller scale - there wouldn't be the same level of huge international media attention as in The Hague. That in turn could avoid the trial being used by the accused as a "soapbox" for their views.

That's currently the case with Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who's defending himself at the ICTY.

Karadzic has denied all the charges against him, saying in court this week that he was "a mild, tolerant man" and that he should be rewarded for "reducing suffering," not accused of carrying out war crimes.

If the ICTY is wound up, as planned, by the end of 2014, when its United Nations mandate runs out, there won't be many more such appearances in court. But an extension of the mandate hasn't been ruled out since the trials against Karadzic and Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic are hugely complex. The ICTY could well be working for several years still.

DW.DE