The Helsinki Commission held a briefing on the path to justice in southeastern Europe on October 7. Presenting his remarks at the briefing was Judge Theodor Meron, President of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
Judge Meron began his remarks by underscoring the immensity of the task at hand. The vast scale of the crimes committed during the Yugoslav conflict, he said, “the murders, the rapes and deportations, the acts of torture, destruction and cruelty, would dwarf the capacity of any single court to bring more than a partial, a very partial reckoning.”
Nevertheless, he said, the tribunal struggles on, patiently and temperately disclosing the truth, giving the victims “a chance to see their sufferings recorded and at least in some small measure vindicated.” Judge Meron asserted that the tribunal demonstrates the viciousness of those who built their power with hate-filled beliefs and sends a compelling message “that only through genuine reconciliation can all the peoples of the former Yugoslavia create thriving societies.”
Helsinki Commission Chairman Rep. Christopher H. Smith (R-NJ) and Ranking Member Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) underscored the important role the tribunal plays. In his opening remarks, Chairman Smith explained that the court was a way of helping to break the climate of impunity and “ensuring that those responsible for heinous crimes would be held to account.”
Commissioner Cardin, likewise, described strong United States support for the court, saying that the United States Congressional Delegation to the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly has raised the war crimes issue at every annual meeting in the last decade. Cardin has sponsored numerous initiatives over the years aimed at bolstering support for the work of the ICTY. The United States took a leading role in the creation of the ICTY, and funds approximately one quarter of its annual budget.
Given the significance placed on the ICTY and its mission, three issues were highlighted: the compliance by participating States with ICTY demands; the implications of the ICTY’s completion strategy; and, the procedural methods of the court.
All three participants insisted on compliance from states in turning over indictees and granting increased access to evidence and archives. Commissioner Cardin recalled that “there are still indictees who have not been turned over to The Hague. Some highly visible indictees, such as Mladic and Karadzic, we’ve now been talking about for too many years.”
Judge Meron contended that while states in the region have increased their cooperation, such cooperation still needs to be made more complete. Sixteen indicted individuals, he explained, are still at large, including Serb army chief Ratko Mladic, Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, as well as Ante Gotovina, one-time Commander of the Split Military District. Meron said that the international community needs to use what he regards as its considerable leverage with the countries of the region to convince them to arrest and deliver to The Hague the most senior people allegedly responsible for war crimes.
Meron noted improvements from Serbia-Montenegro, stating that he is “encouraged by the emerging spirit of cooperation in Belgrade which has produced some significant results in the last year.” But, he said, more needs to be done. Serbia, he argued, must arrest Mladic, whose whereabouts, it is believed, are known; improve access to archives; and end the bottleneck in meeting the demands presented by the ICTY prosecutor. Meron said the tribunal is also “expecting maximum cooperation…from Zagreb” and insisted that “there is no bias or preference of the target of our cooperation.”
Judge Meron, however, reserved particularly harsh words for Republika Srpska. That entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina, he said, “has not been cooperating at all…. There has been no compliance on their part, and much more international pressure is needed.”
With UN Security Council deadlines for completion approaching, Chairman Smith expressed his concern that key indictees would decide to simply wait out the tribunal’s mandate. Judge Meron assured the Commission that the tribunal “will not move toward any closure before we have people like Mladic, Karadzic, and Ante Gotovina at The Hague.” Smith expressed his full support for such a policy, stating that “to allow people like Mladic and Karadzic to escape justice by running out the clock would be a gross violation of human rights in and of itself.”
As part of the ICTY’s completion strategy, Judge Meron said the court intended to transfer some low- to mid-level cases from the ICTY to competent courts in the region, in particular the special war crimes chamber within the newly reconstituted State Court of Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo. He expressed his appreciation to the international community for supporting this body and hoped that the United States and others would follow through on their promises for generous financial contributions.
In addition to improving the legal capacity to try war criminals, Meron praised the Sarajevo court for the training it will provide to lawyers and judges in the area and “the message of democracy and the rule of law that will be triggered by such a court.”
Because of the fragility of the social system in Bosnia-Herzegovina, every bench of the Sarajevo court will have two international judges and only one local judge. He expressed his desire that, over time, the social environment will change to allow the composition to be reversed to give more significant representation to local judges.
When asked whether cases could be transferred to war crimes chambers and courts elsewhere in the region other than the Sarajevo court, Judge Meron said he did not believe it feasible at the moment. At the same time, he argued, “War crimes trials have the greatest resonance when they take place very close to the theater of crime, the place where the crimes have been committed, where the victims or their families still live.” He said, therefore, that it was his hope to have “more and more trials conducted in the area.”
Given the approaching of Security Council deadlines, Judge Meron also discussed some procedural changes the ICTY has adopted in its completion strategy. He described several internal initiatives made by the court attempting to improve efficiency. The tribunal has reformed its procedures for interlocutor appeals to reduce the number of interruptions in the trial and has restricted prosecutorial evidence that judges deem duplicative or unnecessary. Its ability to finish working in a timely fashion, he said, also depends on the choices the prosecutor makes on future indictments.
In response to a question from the audience, Judge Meron commented about the tribunal’s sentencing procedures. The tribunal has at times been accused of meting out sentences that are not commensurate with the gravity of the crime committed. Others have accused the tribunal of passing sentences for some defendants that were much greater than sentences for others convicted of similar crimes.
Without sentencing guidelines from the Security Council, Judge Meron said, the tribunal has had to create its own common law. He stated though that he had “no reason to believe that as a general proposition our sentencing has not been within the parameters of what I would consider to be just and reasonable.” Nevertheless, Judge Meron said, he has formed a working group of several judges to address the sentencing issue because he believes there is no aspect of the tribunal’s activities that cannot be improved further.
The tribunal, according to Judge Meron, represents an enormous experiment in international cooperation. Starting almost from scratch, the ICTY had to create its own rules of procedure and evidence. This effort, the judge claimed, will have an impact even beyond the specific crimes considered. He concluded, “The sort of judgments that we will leave behind from very detailed problems of definitions of international crimes, on the interpretation of the evidence, on the conflicts of evidence, on how to reconcile the notions of common law and civil law, will prove to be, I think, a very important legacy to us all.”
This briefing was the latest in a series of United States Helsinki Commission events and other activities this year intended to promote justice in southeastern Europe through improved cooperation with the ICTY.
The United States Helsinki Commission, an independent federal agency, by law monitors and encourages progress in implementing provisions of the Helsinki Accords. The Commission, created in 1976, is composed of nine Senators, nine Representatives and one official each from the Departments of State, Defense and Commerce.