A modest beginning at The Hague

Along with former Serb President Slobodan Miloševic, the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadžic’s name is a byword for some of the most brutal ethnic cleansing attempted in recent memory and the helplessness and inaction of the international community to check it. Karadzic’s >conviction by a United Nations tribunal in The Hague this week, after a lengthy trial, for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, is thus an important milestone in holding the guilty to account for the atrocities in the Balkans in the 1990s and sending a larger message about the efficacy of international mechanisms to punish excesses. The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) restores hope, albeit a faint one, that political leaders who perpetrate the most brutal atrocities will not go unpunished. Karadžic’s conviction offers little consolation for the millions of individual survivors of the conflict. But there are definite implications from the ruling for a society’s collective sense of fairness and justice and the sanctity of the rule of law. For instance, for the Srebrenica massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in July 1995, the tribunal has upheld the charge of genocide against Karadzic. The town was a refugee enclave, ostensibly under international protection. The prosecution may have painstakingly established the culpability of key individuals such as Karadžic and his general Ratko Mladic. But the utter impotence of the UN and North Atlantic Treaty Organisation forces to prevent the catastrophe, despite repeated warnings, could not have been overlooked under any serious investigation.

Viewed against this larger backdrop, Thursday’s verdict fuels optimism about the role international tribunals can play in holding powerful political players to account. In fact, their critical contribution was brought home in 2015 by the ruling of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that adjudicates disputes between states. The verdict underscored the importance of reconciliation rather than apportioning blame on either Croatia or Serbia for the atrocities. It thus rejected the contention of both Zagreb and Belgrade that the 1948 UN Genocide Convention had been breached during the civil war, when an estimated 1,00,000 people were killed. The merit behind such a cautious stance, involving disputes between sovereign states, could hardly be overstated considering the potential for a nationalist backlash. That was precisely the domestic reaction over the release of a Serb ultra-nationalist leader by the ICTY on health grounds. As regards the permanent global mechanism to try war crimes and crimes against humanity, the influence of the nascent International Criminal Court (ICC) has been severely limited from the start. Washington, Beijing, Moscow and New Delhi, among others, have refused to be brought under its jurisdiction. Moreover, the few investigations The Hague court has so far initiated have predictably drawn flak, as reflecting a bias against African countries. Clearly, the lesson from the conviction of Karadžic is that the search for justice may be painful and endless, but it is a price worth paying to bring perpetrators to book and prevent the violation of human rights.

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Printable version | Dec 3, 2021 7:20:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/A-modest-beginning-at-The-Hague/article14174936.ece

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