Mark V. Vlasic is an adjunct professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and senior fellow at Georgetown’s Institute for Law, Science & Global Security. He served on the Slobodan Milosevic and Srebrenica genocide prosecution trial teams in The Hague. The views expressed are solely those of the writer.
By Mark Vlasic, Special to CNN
This week, the eyes of the world returned – if only for a moment – to the world of international justice in The Hague. In the same week, the International Criminal Court (ICC), the world’s first permanent war crimes court, sentenced its first war criminal, Congolese warlord Thomas Lubanga, to 14 years in prison. And across town at the first international tribunal since Nuremburg, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), U.N. prosecutors called their first witnesses in their case against General Ratko Mladic, charged, in part, with the Srebrenica genocide and the siege of Sarajevo. Thus, in two courtrooms in The Hague, the world was reminded that while international justice may be slow, it does come – and with it, so may come the end of impunity that often exists for mass atrocities.
To be sure, for those in Syria, Sudan and elsewhere, justice and the end of impunity won’t come soon enough. But the fact that some sense of justice has come to those who perished in Congo and Bosnia is nothing to scoff at.
Lubanga, thought once by many to be untouchable, was convicted for his role in enlisting, conscripting, and using child soldiers in the Second Congolese War. And importantly for the march of international justice, Lubanga’s trial, conviction and sentencing marked a number of notable firsts: it was the ICC’s first successful prosecution since its 2002 founding; Lubanga is the first individual to be convicted by the ICC for crimes related to the use of child soldiers; and the trial was the first in which victims participating were able to present their views in court.
Beyond such notable “firsts,” the judgment will likely raise awareness over the plight of child soldiers and, according to the international justice advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, Géraldine Mattioli-Zeltner, it may put military leaders on notice that “using children as a weapon of war is a serious crime that can lead them to the dock.” It may also help bring renewed attention regarding the need to apprehend Joseph Kony, the leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, who is also wanted by the ICC.
To be sure, the ICC’s new chief prosecutor, Fatou Bensouda, a capable Gambian jurist, still has her work cut out for her as the ICC confronts high-profile cases ranging from Uganda to Libya to Sudan and elsewhere. And in many ways, much of the pressure on the ICC is based upon an impressive success rate at the first international tribunal since World War II – the ICTY.
Charged with investigating and prosecuting war crimes arising out of the “Death of Yugoslavia,” the ICTY issued 161 indictments. As of last year, not a single person remained at large – an impressive statistic for any prosecution shop – let alone one that faces the many challenges of an international tribunal.
Thus, this week, as the lead prosecutors on the Mladic case, Dermot Groome and Peter McCloskey, called their first witnesses against a man who was once feared by his enemies and soldiers alike, so too do they call what may be some of the last witnesses at the tribunal that helped pave the way for international justice as we know it today.
And it’s fitting that one of the last cases at the ICTY should focus on Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb Army and alleged mastermind of the Srebrenica genocide, in which more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys were executed. Why? Because, in some ways, the eyes of the world first focused on the tribunal when his accomplice, former Drina Corps commander, Radislav Krstic, was put in the dock (and later convicted) for his part in the slaughter.
As the prosecutor’s case will show, some of Srebrenica’s Muslims were opportunistically killed, but most were slaughtered in a full-scale military operation: hands were tied, eyes were blindfolded and unarmed civilians were lined up before freshly dug mass graves and shot in the back by automatic weapons.
It’s a tragedy that boggles the mind. And perhaps even more so as it happened in Europe – just 17 years ago this week. But the fact that the case is finally coming to conclusion – with the trial of the most senior Bosnian Serb general of the war – is a testament to the march of international justice.
In many ways, the end of high-level impunity came with the arrest and trial of Slobodan Milosevic, the first high-profile head of state to be tried for war crimes at an international tribunal in the history of our planet. Then came the arrests of former presidents Saddam Hussein of Iraq and Charles Taylor of Liberia. They were followed by the arrests of Chad’s former president, Hissene Habre, Cambodia’s Khieu Samphan, the former president of the Khmer Rouge, and Radovan Karadzic, who is now being tried in another courtroom in The Hague.
And what is unique, is that in each case, men who were once deemed untouchable – like Mladic and Lubanga – have been brought to justice, not by the sword, but by the pen. Lawyers and their investigative colleagues have built criminal cases and applied to judges to approve indictments and sign arrest warrants, leading to the arrests and trials of a former strongmen. What happened in The Hague this week is therefore historic. It marks not just the end of impunity for victims in Congo and Bosnia, but in many ways it is a symbolic victory of the pen over the sword. This week, we should all be proud.