A Balkan Lesson on the Limits of Courtroom Justice

May 31, 2016

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.”

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Thank for your good job. I do follow your articles and reports.

TO BUILD A BETTER WORLD AND GREAT HUMANITY, JUSTICE MUST BE SEEN TO BE DONE TO EVERYONE AND EXPEDITIOUSLY. ALL ACTS OF IMPUNITY BY WHOEVER MUST BE ADDRESSED TO GIVE HOPE TO THE DOWNTRODDEN. NO CRIMINAL SHOULD BE SHELTERED BY ANY ONE. AND THE OPPRESSED MUST BE HEARD AND PROTECTED.

Open Foundation Society. As you can gather from all correspondence, I am a staunch supporter of all your programs. Why? Because what you committed yourselves doing goes very deep. People are devastated especially in Rural Areas. I'm South African country- side individual where there's totally nothing done for rural.I mean NOTHING. THE SOUTH AFRICAN GOVERNMENT NOT PRACTICALLY INVOLVED IN ANYTHING THAT HAS TO DO WITH COUNTRY-SIDE COMMUNITY. LOCAL MUNICIPALITIES ARE DOING AS THEY WISH. MONITORING ZERO. LIFE IS PULLED DOWN BY THE SAME GOVERNMENT CAMPAIGNING LAW, JUSTICE, HUMAN RIGHTS. RURAL YOUTH DEVELOPMENT AND COMMUNITY UPLIFTING DOWN TO ZERO. A SORRY SIGHT. UNEMPLOYMENT AND EXTREME POVERTY ORDER OF THE DAY. Thank you for your programs. This is the very community our patriot father NELSON RHOLIHLAHLA MANDELA STOOD UP FOR. TOLERATED TORTURE FOR TWENTY SEVEN YEARS IN PRISON FOR SA FREEDOM. TODAY ALL TALK COMMITMENT TO PEOPLE ON THE GROUND. THEY ALL CAMPAIGN FREEDOM, stating, "father MANDELA VISION and MISSION" for their positios and pockets. ALL LIP-SERVICE AND WINDOW DRESSING. ABSOLUTELY NOTHING FOR THE POOR. INFRASTRUCTURE ZERO.
Ntombi ( down to zero community activist).

WE MUST UNITE AND WORK RELENTLESSLY FOR GLOBAL FREEDOM, JUSTICE AND THE RULE OF LAW FOR NO ONE IS FREE UNTIL ALL ARE FREE INDEED.

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