THE HAGUE – The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which saw some of its powers transferred to a new body in The Hague on Monday, has come under fire for a series of recent acquittals.
But analysts say it will be future judgments on Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his army chief, Ratko Mladic, that will leave the longest-lasting impression of the court in the minds of the public.
In a rare and ferocious critique, one of the tribunal’s own judges said the recent acquittal of two Croatian generals and three high-profile Serbs set an entirely new legal precedent.
Frederik Harhoff sent a letter to the president of the court, American Theodor Meron, leaked to the Danish press last month, accusing him of establishing a legal precedent in the interests of a “military elite of prominent countries,” including Israel and the United States.
Harhoff further claimed that Meron had urged other judges to acquit the officers, possibly pressured by the U.S.
The acquittals would mean that the highest-ranking officers were not automatically responsible for crimes committed by their subordinates, he said, adding wryly, “The American and Israeli military chiefs must be breathing a sigh of relief.”
But according to Goran Sluiter, professor of international law at the University of Amsterdam, the court is still a respected source of authority, regardless of its recent decisions.
“Despite the recent debates, the ICTY remains the benchmark of international courts, because it has succeeded where all others have failed,” he said, referring to the indictment of 161 suspects since 1993 for serious violations of international humanitarian law in the former republic, a feat achieved by no other tribunal.
Meron refused to comment on the damning claims made by his fellow judge.
The court’s chief prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, questioned whether the court president’s continued silence on the issue was helping an already tense situation.
“I would personally consider that, in a world where communication is so important, not reacting at all to criticism was perhaps not the best way to respond,” he said. “Any form of criticism must be seen in a constructive way and become a topic for a debate.”
Without wishing to comment directly on the Harhoff letter, he would only say that the disputes triggered by the acquittals had “surely not helped” the credibility of the tribunal.
Brammertz has said he “shared the disappointment” of victims, and had lodged an appeal to overturn the May 30 acquittals of two Serbian intelligence chiefs, Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic, who were accused of war crimes.
Furthermore, the cases of Mladic and Karadzic could not be compared with those of Stanisic, Simatovic and Yugoslavian army chief Momcilo Perisic, Brammertz added, as they were implicated directly in crimes in Bosnia rather than aiding and abetting from Belgrade.
Experts, however, were confident the trials of Karadzic and Mladic would be foremost in the public consciousness as the court hands the cases to the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals, which is tasked with continuing the judicial process and maintaining the tribunal’s legacy.
Christophe Paulussen, a senior international criminal law researcher at the Asser Institute in The Hague, said that although the recent debate could be damaging if judges were seen to have lost their impartiality, “this episode only concerns a very short period in the history of the tribunal.”
Sluiter was more direct. “I don’t think that history will remember this,” he said. “I think people will remember the judgments of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, for whom the outcome is relatively predictable.”