The Perception of ICTY in Bosnia: One Country, Three Views

“The International Tribunal wasn’t perfect, but there’s nothing perfect in life.” (Vladimír Dzuro according to Ian Willoughby 2018)

In the past several decades, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has played an important role in the post-Dayton era. ICTY had several goals to be accomplished, however, the most important one was to help with reconciliation in society through bringing justice to its closure. Considered to be a proper way to reconcile the divided society, it seems that the ICTY’s decisions are not generally accepted among Bosniaks, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs and in some cases, the role of ICTY might have obstructed the multi-ethnic reconciliation as such. From the aforementioned, this brief analysis seeks to elucidate the roots of causes that inflicted that the ICTY’s work is perceived in negative connotations and if ICTY’s role helped the reconciliation at all.

What was ICTY?

‘The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was a United Nations court of law that dealt with war crimes that took place during the conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s. During its mandate, which lasted from 1993 – 2017, it had irreversibly changed the landscape of international humanitarian law, provided victims with an opportunity to voice the horrors they witnessed and experienced, and proved that those suspected of bearing the greatest responsibility for atrocities committed during armed conflicts can be called to account.’ (ICTY undated).

The perception of ICTY among three constitutive nations

Even though it has already been almost three years since the conclusion of work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), little did it change in the Bosnian context, the opinions still considerably differ. With this in mind, Kostić’s (2012: 659) sociological research showed these differences when examining various respondents. On his first questions, ‘The war crimes tribunal in The Hague is a precondition for a just peace and normal relations’, totally agreed 45 % Bosniaks, 23 % Bosnian Croats and 3 % Bosnian Serbs. In terms of further question, ‘if the trials at the Tribunal are fair’, totally agreed 25 % Bosniaks, 11 % Bosnian Croats and solely 4 % Bosnian Serbs – this dichotomy is primarily derived from the fact that Bosnian Serbs belonged into the largest group of convicts. Other studies are not any different. Brian Grodsky (2017) stated that only 8 % of citizens BiH agrees that ICTY’s decisions were fair and could have helped the reconciliation.

Missing ‘debosnification’?

One of the goals of ICTY was inter-ethnic reconciliation. However, if this goal has been achieved is questionable. It seems that, in the contrary, it might have helped to broaden the ethnic-division. Additionally, this turns out to be even more problematic because a considerable amount of war convicts is perceived within their ethnic group as heroes (Sito-Sucic 2018), especially among the ex-combatants. This consequently leads to myriad issues, therefore, some authors such as Zlatko Dizdarevic (2005) assume that Bosnia is missing a process similar to ‘denazification’. With regards to this, poet and writer Yevgeny Yevtushenko declared his assumptions concerning ‘debosnification’ (according to Lueck 1993).

ICTY towards reconciliation?

Furthermore, a positive impact of ICTY on reconciliation is also questioned within the academic sphere. Philippe Sands from the University College London stated that ICTY helped to clarify the tremendous amount of war crimes, however, according to him, it did not help much the reconciliation at all (according to Bowcott 2017). What’s more, Sand’s statement is supported by judge Carmel Agius who was the ICTY’s former President and who declared that the ICTY never sought the reconciliation but rather conveying the truth (according to Džidić 2017). By contrast, scholars such as James Meernik and Jose Raul Guerrera confirmed the existence of a positive bond between the work of ICTY and reconciliation in Bosnia whereas they contend that ‘the truth of international justice can make a positive contribution ‘ towards reconciliation (Meernik – Guerro 2013: 402–403).

Mother countries as another obstruction towards reconciliation?

When analysing the impact of ICTY on Bosnia, it is inevitable to stress the importance of neighbouring countries, Croatia and Serbia. With this in mind, it would be wrong to contemplate that Bosnian Croats and Serbs are not watching what the happenings in their mother countries. It also goes hand in hand with the fact that Bosnian Croats and Serbs have not fully identified themselves with Bosnia as such in contrast with Bosniaks. For Croatia, it is symptomatic that their media (typically Jutarnji and Vecernji list) and high-positioned politicians (such as the former president Stjepan Mesić) rather rarely objectively interpreted the verdicts of ICTY. To give an illustration, in 2017 after the trial with Slobodan Praljak who intentionally committed suicide by poisoning himself during the trial, the Croatian media referred about this incident that way, that Praljak was wrongly convicted and portrayed him as a victim (Milekcic 2019). By the same token, Croatian historian Ivo Lučić refused the ICTY’s decision as well and what’s more, he called Praljak a legend (Lučić 2017). On the other side, in Serbia, we can also find similarities to Croatia. For instance, the former minister of justice Nikola Selaković designated ICTY as an arrogant institution with which Serbia will deal according to its national interests (Nikolic 2016). In terms of Serbia, it is also important to point out that the Serbian parliament has never designated the Srebrenica massacre as the act of genocide (Subotic 2018; Ljubojević 2017: 20–21).

Above all, it could be concluded that the role of ICTY is not positively perceived among the Bosnian nations. One way to overcome this problem could be to enhance the strategic communication towards the citizens of BiH to explain to them the work of ICTY. Another problem lays down with the nationalistic oriented political parties which have rarely judged the work of ICTY positively. However, with this in regards, as it has been stressed out in the previous article (The Political Situation in Bosnia. Unsolvable riddle?) 25 years of systematic development for war-thorn society such as in Bosnia are still not enough to bury forever the demons of the war, especially ethnical hatreds and nationalism. All things considered, it seems reasonable to assume that in fact the ICTY helped reconcile the society just partially.

Written by Zdeněk Rod 

About the author: Zdeněk is working as the project manager and senior research fellow at the Center of Security Analysis and Prevention.

Photo: CNA Belgrade/Sarajevo


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