On Tuesday, a small crowd of people gathered in the central square of the town of Prijedor in northwest Bosnia, to remember the grim events of May 31, 1992.
At that time, as the former state of Yugoslavia broke up into its constituent republics, a horrific three-way battle for control was gathering pace in Bosnia and Herzegovina between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. On May 31, after taking control of Prijedor in April, the Bosnian Serbs ordered all non-Serbs to identify their houses with white flags, singling them out for persecution. More than 3,000 people were killed, some in a series of massacres, some dying of abuse and torture in infamous detention camps set up outside the town.
The ceremony on the town square this year focused on commemorating 102 children who died or went missing during the violence—and on their parents’ as yet unsuccessful efforts to secure permission from authorities to erect a permanent memorial.
The events that took place at Prijedor have been well documented, most effectively perhaps by the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which was set up in 1993 as war still raged in Bosnia.
But the argument over commemorating the past raises a question: how far did the Hague-based ICTY go towards achieving what the United Nations wanted it to do—to bring to justice those responsible for atrocities, to provide redress to the victims, and to “contribute to the restoration and maintenance of peace”?
Find out more about the impact of the ICTY, and the broader lessons to be learned for new efforts to promote peace through justice in our latest Talking Justice podcast. Host Jim Goldston talks to Refik Hodzic of the International Center for Transitional Justice, and Laura Silber of the Open Society Foundations, who covered the breakup of the former Yugoslavia for the Financial Times.
Refik, who was himself raised in Prijedor, argues that Bosnia and the ICTY offer important lessons for future efforts to address wartime atrocities, including the need for a holistic political approach that includes peace-building efforts outside the courtroom. “Without these other elements,” he argues, “we are placing so much burden on the likes of the ICC, and what criminal justice can do, that they are inevitably set up to fail.”