News / World

Yugoslav war crimes court wins praise from many - not Russia

The U.N. war crimes tribunal for former Yugoslavia, which is closing after 24 years, drew praise Wednesday from its president, the U.S. and many Security Council members — but not from Russia, which called it biased and anti-Serb.

The council established the tribunal in 1993 to deal with atrocities during the conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s. It was the first international court to investigate and prosecute allegations of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide since the tribunals in Nuremberg and Tokyo after World War II.

At a council meeting before the tribunal ends operations Dec. 31, its president, Judge Carmel Aguis, said the court proved to be "a bold and innovative response to conflict" that has written "a very important page in the history of international justice and the fight against impunity."

He expressed hope that the tribunal's "legacy and judgments" won't be undermined by the dramatic death of Croat ex-general Slobodan Praljak, who took poison Nov. 29 after judges at the tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, confirmed his 20-year-sentence for war crimes in Bosnia.

Deputy U.S. Ambassador Michele Sison said the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia "established key precedents in international criminal law" and "has created a legacy of the greatest importance."

Russia's deputy ambassador, Petr Iliichev, disagreed. He said the court was based on "a one-sided, anti-Serb interpretation of the tragic events of the 1990s in former Yugoslavia" and didn't play an impartial and independent role.

"We are convinced that a whole range of its decisions have discredited the very idea of international justice," Iliichev said.

According to the court, it indicted 161 people and concluded proceedings for all of them — convicting and sentencing 90, acquitting 19, referring 13 to national courts, and sending two to be retried by a "residual" court that is wrapping up the tribunal's work. It said 37 people had their indictments withdrawn or died.

Iliichev complained that more than 60 per cent of the convictions dealt with Serbs whose sentences totalled more than 1,000 years while the other parties to the conflict — Croats and Bosnian Muslims — often received "a range of non-guilty sentences."

Sison highlighted the Nov. 22 conviction of Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb general whose forces rained shells and snipers' bullets on Sarajevo and carried out the worst massacre in Europe since World War II at Srebrenica. He was convicted of genocide and other crimes and sentenced to life in prison.

Iliichev called Mladic's sentence a continuation of the "politicized and biased line" against Serbs.

Croatian President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic said her country shares the assessments that it "greatly lived up to the expectations of the international community" by fighting against impunity and ensuring accountability for war crimes.

"Equally important is the tribunal's role in giving voice to over 100,000 victims of horrific crimes," she said.

Serbia's justice minister, Nela Kuburovic, noted that Serbs accounted for 109 of the 161 people indicted by the tribunal.

"These numbers speak tellingly about the selective justice of the tribunal, especially in the context of its mandate to establish the truth about the armed conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and bring about reconciliation," she said.

Serge Brammertz, a prosecutor for the court, said reconciliation in the Balkans remains a significant challenge, noting that convicted war criminals "continue to be seen by many as heroes, while victims and survivors are ignored and dismissed."

"The reality is that there is still no true will within the region to accept the immense wrongdoings of the past and move forward, sadly most of all among the political leadership," he said.

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