Yugoslavia tribunal closes, leaving a powerful legacy of war crimes justice

The court that put Slobodan Milošević in the dock is to be formally dissolved this week after 24 years and 161 indictments.

Victims’ relatives react as they watch a live TV broadcast from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia when UN judges announced the life sentence in the trial of former Bosnian Serbian commander Ratko Mladic (Photograph: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

Victims’ relatives react as they watch a live TV broadcast from the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia when UN judges announced the life sentence in the trial of former Bosnian Serbian commander Ratko Mladic Photograph: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

After sitting for 10,800 days, hearing 4,650 witnesses and digesting 2.5m pages of transcripts, the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) will be formally dissolved on Thursday.

A closing ceremony in The Hague, attended by the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, will mark the end of 24 years of investigations and prosecutions that delivered 161 high-profile indictments.

The war crimes tribunal put the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević, the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić and Gen Ratko Mladic in the dock. Established in 1993, it was the first tribunal of its kind since hearings in Nuremberg and Tokyo at the end of the second world war.

Protesters stand outside the court in The Hague with posters including one of Radovan Karadžić as they wait for the verdict on Ratko Mladic in November. (Photograph: Michel Porro/Getty Images)

Ninety individuals have been sentenced for genocide, crimes against humanity or other crimes. Politicians and senior military officers, judgment after judgment confirmed, will no longer escape with impunity but be held responsible for their actions, even in wartime.

Ultimate success in hunting down fugitives, however, has taken decades and there has been criticism that the tribunal represented victor’s justice: about two-thirds of those charged were Serbs. Supporters of the court countered that the worst atrocities of the conflict were inflicted by Serb forces on Bosnian civilians. Closure of the ICTY highlights a shift in international justice away from discrete tribunals – imposing justice after successive conflicts in the Balkans, Rwanda or Sierra Leone – towards the more ambitious goal of universal jurisdiction under the international criminal court (ICC).

The ICTY’s legacy has been pivotal, Philippe Sands QC, professor of international law at University College London, believes, paving the way for a broader international consensus on war crimes justice.

“The breakup of Yugoslavia has been a catalyst with very significant consequences,” he said. “The experience has been mixed. It hasn’t brought tranquility and reconciliation to the region but it has delivered ... important judgments on individuals.”

Sands, who acted for Croatia against Serbia in proceedings at the international court of justice, added: “The overall record of the ICTY reflects the significant but limited function that international justice can play in resolving longstanding political differences. It’s one tool in an armoury. The ad hoc tribunals have had an easier run than their global counterpart, [the ICC].”

Among the ICTY’s achievements was the accumulation of legal expertise and testimony, producing an archive of evidence that will serve future historians well. Prosecutors pioneered the legal concept of “joint criminal enterprise”, a doctrine relied on to tie defendants to a common plan for genocide or crimes against humanity.

Sir Geoffrey Nice QC, who worked at the ICTY between 1998 and 2006 and led the prosecution of Slobodan Milošević, recognises its success but has reservations. “My overall view of the ICTY is much affected by the corruption of history around what happened at Srebrenica [where 8,000 Bosnian men and youths were massacred],” he explained.

A video image of Ratko Mladic reacting during his trial before being dragged out of the courtroom in The Hague in November. (Photograph: AFP/Getty Images)

“Treachery by the US, UK and France, it appears, may have allowed a humanitarian nightmare to develop while Dutch peacekeepers were not told that they had been abandoned. If so, these powerful states must have revealed to Milošević that if the Bosnian Serbs took Srebrenica there would be no air strikes.

“At the ICTY, it seemed, non-combatant ‘western’ states, plus the ‘losing’ state of Serbia, were able, on occasions, to interfere with the rule of law – often by withholding evidence – to ‘clean up’ the true historical record, favourably to Serbia and to the west,” said Nice, whose most recent book, Justice for All and How to Achieve It, assesses the records of war tribunals.