In pursuit of ethnic cleansers

Justice in the Balkans
November 5, 2004

Commentators will look back on the 1990s as an era when, after a hiatus of almost half a century, the international community started to revive some of the lost ideals of Nuremberg. It was done by taking significant steps to limit the impunity that existed under international law for some of the perpetrators of the worst human-rights violations.

The decade was marked by the genocide in Rwanda and the misery of ethnic cleansing in the Balkans. Both were met with the creation of ad hoc international tribunals to try the perpetrators of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes (although each tribunal was criticised as a "fig leaf", hiding the international community's embarrassment for not preventing the atrocities in the first place).

The turn of the millennium was marked by the Pinochet case and - most important of all - the signature of a treaty to establish a new, permanent International Criminal Court. The new century has seen more milestones: the entry into force of the Statute for the International Criminal Court (2002), Slobodan Milosevic before the International Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (the Hague Tribunal) and the creation of new ad hoc tribunals, such as the Special Court for Sierra Leone. News of the capture of Saddam Hussein immediately prompted a debate over how - as opposed to whether - he would be tried.

Since its creation in 1993, the Hague Tribunal has been at the vanguard of this new era of international law. From the outset, this novel institution has faced many challenges as it has attempted to move into the largely uncharted waters of international criminal justice. The experience gained will prove valuable to the progress of new institutions such as the ICC.

Justice in the Balkans , written by an American professor of sociology and law, is a highly readable account of the Hague Tribunal's difficult infancy in 1995, when it started to function properly, and of how it grew in stature and matured through the latter half of the 1990s until today. It provides a detailed narrative of the working of the institution - not from a technical and legalistic angle, but in terms of day-to-day activity at key moments, especially the latter years when the massacre at Srebrenica was investigated and Milosevic brought before the judges.

At each stage, John Hagan casts light on the major personalities who have made the Hague Tribunal tick. The book succeeds because Hagan gained an intimate knowledge through extensive access to the tribunal, including more than 100 interviews with key personnel. It stands as a testament to the fact that the successes and failures of the international criminal justice movement, which rest on many factors, especially rely on the quality of the personnel manning the institution, including, critically, the prosecutor.

Justice in the Balkans is not a textbook for the scholar hoping to learn more about the "law" of the tribunal and the jurisprudential significance of its judgments. It begins and ends with the prosecution of Milosevic - the one case by which history might judge the tribunal's success or failure - and tells the essential story of the tribunal's evolution. Hagan provides a graphic narrative of the landmark cases in this evolution, from the first hearing in 1995, and describes in detail the problems and pitfalls that have been encountered as the tribunal's main actors pursued international accountability for crimes such as those committed in Srebrenica and Foca.

The heroes of the story emerge clearly as the succession of individuals who developed, almost from scratch, the effectiveness of the Office of the Prosecutor of the Tribunal. The book's strength is the way it brings this point to life, describing in detail and placing in context some of the decisions taken over prosecutorial strategies and trial proceedings. The credibility of what is said is underlined by the way Hagan makes the account personalised and detailed, including extracts from interviews conducted with key figures within the tribunal.

This book will interest academics in the fields of sociology, criminology and international criminal law. But it should also prove worthwhile to non-specialist readers seeking to find out more about characters such as Carla del Ponte (third chief prosecutor, nicknamed "the Bulldog", who oversaw the transfer of Milosevic for trial for genocide and crimes against humanity) and the qualities of Milosevic as a lawyer. Readers will learn much about the human tragedy of the Balkans, and how the trial process resurrects ghastly memories for witnesses, as well as gaining insight into the great challenges and complexities associated with international criminal law mechanisms. The real struggle that lies ahead for the global justice movement is brought into sharp perspective.

Ed Bates is lecturer in human rights law, Southampton University.

Justice in the Balkans: Prosecuting War Crimes in the Hague Tribunal

Author - John Hagan
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 4
Price - £20.50
ISBN - 0 226 31228 3

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