International Justice Might Not Be Blind

“Justice turns the scale, bringing to some learning through suffering. —Aeschylus, Agamemnon

In a Nutshell

Set up in the aftermath of the bloody Yugoslav Wars, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was the world’s first step toward truly international justice. It was followed by the Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) and, in 2002, the birth of the International Criminal Court (ICC). Since its founding, dozens of war criminals have been tried and convicted there. Yet there are many who claim the tribunal is not independent, but really just playing to deeply vested interests.

The Whole Bushel

In summer 2013, an email leaked to the press which threw the international community into turmoil. Written by then–ICTY judge Frederik Harhoff, it accused the Tribunal of “changing direction” in prosecutions. The month before, two high-ranking Serbian officials responsible for training and funding paramilitaries had been acquitted, a decision Harhoff felt would never have been made in the court’s early days. His reason: outside interference.

According to Harhoff and others, the ICTY’s original remit allowed it to prosecute those high up the chain of command. All judges needed to know was that someone had funded or trained others who committed atrocities to be found guilty. The 2013 ruling changed all that. Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to prove that someone had facilitated war crimes. You had to show that they had knowingly encouraged or allowed them. Aside from making prosecutions harder, this may have directly benefited some in the international community.

Speaking to the BBC, Peter Robinson, the lawyer for Radovan Karadzic, claimed that the old laws could have theoretically been used to prosecute Bill Clinton. As head of a state that armed Bosnian rebel groups, he would be responsible for any crimes they committed. At the same time, those who armed future insurgent groups (such as in Ukraine or Syria), could find themselves before the ICC. In his email, Harhoff claimed that it was for precisely this reason that US and Israeli representatives had pressured for the change in laws. As the Independent pointed out, while these changes might shelter Western leaders, they could also lead to someone like Bashar al-Assad walking free from an eventual tribunal on Syria.

As a result of the email leak, Frederik Harhoff was forced to resign from his post on the ICTY. Yet others, such as Human Rights Watch’s International Justice Program Director, felt he’d raised a valid point. With the standard of conviction at the ICTY higher than it had ever been at Nuremberg, it seemed to practically rule out senior figures ever being sentenced. With a verdict on Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic due sometime next year, it may yet turn out that international justice is not blind after all.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image credit: J.-H. Janßen
BBC News: ICTY Hague court in turmoil amid claims of manipulation
World Affairs: Trials and Tribulations: Politics as Justice at the ICTY
The Independent: Judge thrown off Yugoslavia war crimes tribunal for criticising ‘change of direction’ in verdicts