by Rhodri C. Williams
Last week, I had the opportunity to join a symposium at the Hugo Valentin Center (HVC) at Uppsala University on the aftermath of the November 2012 Gotovina decision by the Appeals Chamber of the ICTY. Gotovina was the first in a run of three high profile acquittals, of which two (Gotovina and the more recent Perisic) involved defendants previously sentenced to lengthy jail terms by their respective Trial Chambers.
It was a good discussion, which I can summarize briefly. Tomislav Dulić of the HVC opened by contrasting many historians’ acceptance of the now notorious “Brioni transcripts” as establishing the intent of the Croatian Government to expel Serb civilians from the Krajina region in 1995, against the Gotovina Appeals Chamber judges’ reluctance to convict in the face of ambiguities in the recordings.
Mark Klamberg of Stockholm University followed with a cogent legal analysis of Gotovina (available here on his blog). He noted that judicial fact-finding is necessarily narrower than historical fact-finding, both in order to speed the conclusion of cases and secure the stability of their outcomes, but pointed out a number of troubling questions raised by the Gotovina decision, including the peremptory rejection of the Trial Chamber’s finding of a joint criminal enterprise (JCE) to expel the Krajina Serbs based on the collapse of a single element in the case for a JCE (related to mortar targeting).
Roland Kostić (HVC) then presented some of his findings from repeated surveys in Bosnia, noting how the Tribunal’s rather modest efforts to explain itself have long since been marginalized by a torrent of predictable and frequently dogmatic local spin (among other glum statistics, it seems the average Bosnian currently ‘tunes in’ to the ICTY about once a year).
I contributed as well, with a post-mortem of the various post-mortems of Gotovina, et.al., including the current blame debate between those who see a well-earned rebuke to an overreaching and under-informed Del Ponte Office of the Prosecutor (OTP) and those who see the Meron Appeals Chamber as obtusely pedantic at best and politically motivated at worst. The fact that both sides largely agree that the resulting acquittals represent an institutional failure, particularly with regard to the victims of the war, is cold comfort.
All in all, one came away with the impression of an institution that had lost its way, and, being burdened with far too many expectations, looked set to achieve few of them. On the other hand, the crisis may have spurred a trend toward clearer thinking on what the Tribunal really can and should do. Richard Dicker at Human Rights Watch recently pointed out that reconciliation can never be a realistic short-term goal for any institution and deterrence remains elusive, but that international trials nevertheless “can, by honoring victims, rendering justice and imposing punishment on the guilty, demonstrate the rule of law in the communities most affected by the crimes.”
The fundamental importance of restoring civic trust by reaffirming norms subverted by mass atrocities has been a central theme for the current UN Special Rapporteur on transitional justice issues, Pablo de Greiff. A recent post in EJILTalk on the current concentration camp guard trials in Germany by Kai Ambos forcefully underscores this point:
Punishment reconfirms and thus restores the norms which have been broken by the criminal act. Thus, with punishment the law reaffirms itself against its negation, … . In this perspective punishment is supposed to strengthen the society’s trust in legal norms and therefore to ensure that the people act according to the law…. That goes far beyond a mere symbolic effect.… For without the society’s trust in legal norms and of course in the institutions which apply these norms, no state can permanently claim any legitimacy vis-à-vis its society.
So there is still an important job for the ICTY to complete, in other words. However, it is unlikely to happen if the prior OTP and the current Trials Chamber keep conspiring to produce unbroken acquittals. Meanwhile, there seems to be little public soul-searching going on at the Tribunal itself. The institution’s twentieth anniversary passed in near-funereal silence outside the Hague, but was celebrated there with diagrams and speeches that seem to exude damage control. While all involved cited undoubted successes on the part of the Tribunal, there was a sense between the lines of the institution seeking to reassure itself of its importance.
This week, however, the ICTY Trial Chamber pulled off the remarkable feat of creating yet more confusion, and this in the course of a mere 48 hours. Continue reading