Genocide conviction in the Hague: A win for the forces of resilience and persistence
by Andrew TARSY
5 April 2015
I was attending a conference in Northern Ireland in 2014 when I met a genocide survivor over my morning coffee. After arriving in Belfast on an overnight flight, I walked in groggy to an unfamiliar conference center. I filled a cup with something dark and strong and sat down next to a friendly-looking gentleman.
“My name is Andy,” I said. “I am from Boston.”
“My name is Amir,” he said. “I am from Srebrenica. You know, we had a genocide.”
I hurried a few sips and gave the gentleman my full attention. In short order, Amir Kulaglic told me he was the only male in his extended family to survive the genocide in Srebrenica. He remains deeply connected to all of the widowed and orphaned women in his family while laboring as a justice advocate who still believes in a better future for his city. And daily, he said, he sees free men on the streets of Srebrenica who he knows killed his family and his neighbors.
There is a context that explains Mr. Kulaglic’s directness in our early morning conversation. The Belfast conference (the Forum for Cities in Transition) was a gathering of leaders in government and civil society from about 25 different cities around the world, all of which face difficult transitions in the wake of violent and divisive conflict. I wrote about the conference from the perspective of an impatient Bostonian when I came back.
After hearing two speakers affiliated with the Wave Trauma Centre give painful testimony of losing loved ones in Belfast bombings that targeted civilians, my coffee friend raised his hand and was recognized by the moderator. He addressed the speakers, one Catholic, one Protestant, and both Irish:
“You are not victims and survivors, you are victors.”
Kulaglic might be unlikely to claim his strength as a virtue. To hear his voice booming over a room full of his peers from around the world, however, is to hear a clear point of view. In spite of all the pain and incoherence, the work of humanity continues; and it appears to have saved a special assignment for men like him. His is the face of resilience.
There is an unassuming courthouse in the Hague in the Netherlands that serves a very different, but complementary role; and it is the face of persistence. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia sits beneath a United Nations flag in a leafy district far from the busy historic and commercial hearts of a very old city. It has sat there twenty-three years, staffed by investigators, prosecutors (and defense lawyers), judges and their law clerks, and more than a few security personnel. The ICTY is an apparatus dedicated to bringing a measure of justice to the perpetrators of atrocities committed during the wars that broke up Yugoslavia in the 1990s – and to their victims. As the first war crimes tribunal set up since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials that followed World War Two, the ICTY faced skepticism, cynicism and an unclear mandate under international law when it began its work in 1993. Whatever critics say, it has indicted more than 160 individuals from myriad ethnic and national backgrounds and all levels of political, military and paramilitary rank.
I had the chance to watch proceedings at the ICTY a few times while serving in 2009 as a visiting professional across town at the International Criminal Court. It takes a special kind of vision to stick with a task like the tribunal has embraced: tracking down and prosecuting the butchers behind interlocking campaigns of massacre, ethnic cleansing and rape that took place in Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Mass killings, population removal and utter destruction shocked the world and led to mobilization of an international coalition of ground troops in 1995. They were too late to prevent wide scale horror, and in some instances European “peace-keepers” who preceded the ground troops have been found liable for enabling the killing, e.g. the Dutch in the Srebrenica massacres. In its wake was a fragile and superficial peace, and an international tribunal to hold perpetrators of well documented war crimes and crimes against humanity accountable.
Just last week, on March 24, the court convicted Radovan Karadzic, former President of the Republika Srpska (the primary Bosnian Serb entity) of the crime of genocide for the murder of more than 8,000 Muslim male residents of Srebrenica. The presiding judge stated plainly, “As the President of the [Republic of Srpska] and Supreme Commander of the [Bosnian Serb Army], the Accused was the sole person within the [Republic] with the power to intervene to prevent the Bosnian Muslim males from being killed.” Not only did he fail to do so – he ordered their transfer from detention centers to locations where they would be killed; and he did so with the intent that that particular end be reached, the court concluded. As the BBC detailed, “[t]he trial was a weighty affair – lasting five years, followed by an additional 18-month deliberation by the bench” that reviewed three million pages of evidence.
Karadzic’s was perhaps the most recognizable face of the conflict. And now, by order of the court, his face is the face of genocide. He was sentenced to forty years in prison, a sentence that in its moderation more reflects European norms than the slap on the wrist it might appear to be. The strongest argument for remaining dissatisfied here comes from the families of victims of the many of Karadzic’s other genocidal acts for which Karadzic was not convicted. And even in the case of the Srebrenica families, what is an equitable result when the extent and depravity of the crimes committed include the near erasure of an entire ethnic group? As the busy ICTY prepares to wind down its last few cases and complete the transfer of further activity to local courts, it represents an imperfect attempt at persistence in the face of a near impossible task.
I wish I could speak tonight with Amir Kulaglic, the survivor and advocate I met over coffee in Belfast a year and a half ago. He might restate the staggering realism he shared with me and in a 2013 piece when he wrote that “Srebrenica had 37,000 inhabitants, but today there are only 5,000 people left. The economy is ruined, many victims have never been found, and the perpetrators not only walk free, but have active roles in the city government. There is still a war in people’s minds.”
Perhaps today Amir is feeling a modicum of satisfaction; but he is bound to be struggling to find much relief in the result. He wrote in 2013 that “[m]aybe future generations will someday see justice and reparations. But if justice arrives too late, can it be called justice at all?”
Andrew Tarsy is a Senior Fellow at UMass Boston’s McCormack School of Policy and Global Studies, in the Center for Peace Democracy and Development and Senior Vice President of Everseat, Inc. In 2009 he was a Visiting Professional at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, Netherlands. He is also former President of the Edward Kennedy Institute for United States Senate and former Executive Director of the Anti-Defamation League of New England.
The article was originally published by Andrew Tarsy on LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/genocide-conviction-hague-triumph-faces-forces-resilience-tarsy