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Karadžić's Trial Was a Historic Moment - But for Whose History?

30/03/2016 11:37 | Updated 30 March 2016

This week was a historic one in international justice. Over 20 years after the tragic massacre at Srebrenica in which over 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were murdered, Radovan Karadžić, former President of the Republika Srpska, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Moreover, the International Criminal Court (ICC) convicted Jean-Pierre Bemba, former Vice-President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) of war crimes and crimes against humanity. These convictions, while eventful, should not provoke fanfare too hastily; rather, international law practitioners should use this opportunity to reflect on the state of international justice, and make vital improvements to its apparatuses. This article will focus on the responses to Karadžić's conviction, and the lessons to be learned from the ICTY's experiences.

Karadžić's trial was a strange one from its very inception. He was indicted in 1996, and lived as a fugitive until his arrest in Belgrade in 2008. He had been living under the name 'Dragan Dabic' and working as a spiritual healer in this time- a rather chilling irony given his role in the atrocities during the war. In his term in office, he oversaw the indiscriminate shelling of cities and towns, ethnic cleansing and systematic mass rape of Bosniak women and men. The most recent estimates suggest that over 100,000 people were killed during the war, and half of all Bosnians were forced to flee their homes.

Given the nature of the acts committed, it ought to be surprising that the verdict of the Court was not celebrated more in Bosnia. However, all sides to the conflict had legitimate grievances with the result. In its judgment, the Court found Karadžić guilty of genocide in respect to Srebrenica. But crucially, he was found not guilty with respect to other charges of genocide. It is important to bear in mind that the events in Srebrenica were not one-off instances of mass atrocities targeted at Bosniaks, but rather formed part of a broader pattern of systematic violence which tore the whole country apart. Similar atrocities took place in detention camps across Bosnia, in Trnopolje, Omarska, Vlasenica, Bijeljina, Kljuć, Sanski Most, Brcko and so many other towns; in the small town of Foça, the entire Muslim population was killed or expelled, and another rape camp established in place of human life. The Court examined these instances in detail and, shockingly, found that the threshold for genocide had not been met in these cases.

There is no denying that what happened at Srebrenica was appalling, and deserves the full weight of the international community's condemnation behind it. But for the thousands of Bosniaks who were expelled from their homes, killed or had their friends, families and neighbours killed in a ruthless act of ethnic cleansing, the judgment wasn't just disappointing: it was a betrayal.

On the other side, Karadžić's conviction was interpreted as the work of an ethnically-biased kangaroo court by Serbs, both within Serbia itself and the Republika Srpska. Republika Srpska media are depicting him as a misunderstood hero unfairly convicted by the Court- photos on news websites portray an almost exclusively beaming, defiant Karadžić. The day the judgment was issued, thousands of ultra-nationalists attended a rally in Belgrade to condemn the verdict. And in an egregious act of defiance, earlier this week, Milorad Dodik, the current president of Republika Srpska, inaugurated a new student dormitory in Pale - the very area from which Karadžić and Ratko Mladić bombed Sarajevo during the siege - and named it 'Radovan Karadžić'.

These reactions should cause grave concern from a post-conflict justice perspective. But beyond this, such responses ought to prompt us to question whether the ICTY has sufficiently fulfilled its mandate. National reconciliation is a crucial tenet of post-war state-building, particularly in ethnically divided states such as Bosnia-Herzegovina. As such, the fact that racial tensions not only still exist, but that there has been such staunch denial of moral culpability by so many voices, poses a huge problem for the ICTY's credibility as a peace-building mechanism. This is perhaps reflected in the fact that the ICTY's outreach efforts were, at best, lacklustre, and at worst, completely bungled.

The upshot of all this is that while developments in international justice should be seen as opening up exciting new opportunities in the field, we must celebrate the verdicts with a great deal of caution. Crucially, we must avoid idolizing the institutions that issue them. It is easy to get absorbed by the fanfare when such verdicts are delivered. After all, these institutions were established with the best intentions, and are deeply committed to the goals of universal human rights and ending impunity for the most serious international crimes. But the impact of these trials goes far beyond the offices of practitioners in The Hague, and this needs to be reflected on the ground and in judgments. International practitioners need to learn from the mistakes of the ICTY to build a better model for post-conflict justice. Else, we risk the international community becoming disenchanted from these institutions completely.

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