Almost 30 years ago, Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic trained and directed militias that committed some of the worst atrocities of the post-Cold War era.

In the Balkan wars, their militias are alleged to have conducted massacres at hospitals, razed villages and shot prisoners to help cleanse Bosnia and Croatia of non-Serbs.

Last week, Stanisic and Simatovic — the chief and deputy chief, respectively, of Serbia’s state security services in the 1990s — were sentenced for their crimes by the U.N. tribunal established in 1993 to judge the war crimes committed during the violent breakup of Yugoslavia.

This long overdue verdict, says the tribunal’s supporters, shows that international law is capable of meting out justice to the perpetrators of the atrocities in the Balkan wars. The late Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic died in 2006 during his trial at The Hague, while an earlier verdict against a Serb general was overturned in 2013.

The U.N. website for the tribunal justifies its work in these terms. It says the tribunal “proved that those suspected of bearing the greatest responsibility for atrocities committed during armed conflicts can be called to account.” But is that really true?

Justice for the Serb regime that instigated the Balkan wars was delivered in 2000, when Milosevic tried to steal an election he lost and his citizens rebelled in a nonviolent revolution. Ultimately Milosevic’s own deputies refused to fire on demonstrators as they stormed the capitol in Belgrade.

A new group took power. And in 2003, Stanisic and Simatovic, like Milosevic himself, were arrested by the Serbian police and sent to The Hague.

This has been a pattern. The International Criminal Court, which was a successor to tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, indicted former Sudanese dictator Omar Bashir in 2009 and 2010 for war crimes in Darfur.

Until last year, there was no chance that Bashir would turn himself in. And he even occasionally traveled abroad with no risk of being apprehended. It was only in 2020, after a new Sudanese government overthrew Bashir in 2019, that Khartoum agreed to send its former leader to stand before the ICC.

All of this is to say that international tribunals are largely ceremonial until leaders who commit war crimes are ousted, or their armies defeated.

Nor are these tribunals necessary for determining the guilt or innocence of war criminals. Consider the long trial of Stanisic and Simatovic: In 2013, they were acquitted because prosecutors failed to establish a direct link between the two men and the atrocities their militias committed. The verdict was appealed, eventually leading to this week’s verdict. But had the acquittal been allowed to stand, would that mean Stanisic and Simatovic did not commit war crimes? Of course not.

Nor did the world need a tribunal to know that Milosevic was trying to ethnically cleanse Bosnia. The evidence was widely reported as his campaign was under way. The atrocities his forces committed were egregious enough that the U.S. and NATO felt compelled to belatedly intervene.

All that said, there are arguments for the value of international courts, especially when it comes to atrocities and wars. They provide an opportunity for victims to confront their tormentors. They provide a historical record — not the only one, but an important one — of war crimes. And they can be useful in pressuring lower-level officials to defect from regimes committing atrocities.

Yet it’s also important to understand the limits of these international tribunals. They are no substitute for revolution or intervention. It took nearly 30 years for a tribunal to find Stanisic and Simatovic guilty. Had it not been for the Serbian activists who ousted the dictator these men served, they would still be free.

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering national security and foreign policy.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.