THE HAGUE (Reuters) - The U.N. war crimes court that prosecuted atrocities committed during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and put former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic on trial, closed its doors on Thursday after two decades.
“Today it’s common for the U.N. Security Council to call for perpetrators of the worst crimes be held responsible. .... Accountability has taken root in our collective conscience,” said U.N. Secretary General António Guterres of the court’s legacy at a ceremony in The Hague.
When the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was set up in 1993, the Balkan wars were still raging and few thought it stood much chance of success. But it went on through international co-operation to capture and try every one of the 161 suspects it indicted who didn’t die first.
It was the first serious attempt to hold war criminals responsible for their actions since the Nuremberg trials after World War Two. Now the idea that international courts or special tribunals will be set up to try war crimes after conflicts has become commonplace.
The ICTY had begun to fade from popular consciousness outside of the Balkans until the conviction last month of Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic of genocide for the massacre of thousands of unarmed men and boys at Srebrenica, Bosnia in 1995.
Days later, Bosnian Croat general Slobodan Praljak committed suicide in the courtroom by drinking a cyanide potion moments after his conviction and 20-year sentence were upheld.
A low came in 2006 when Milosevic, whose trial had dragged on for years, died of a heart attack in his cell in 2006 before a verdict was reached in his case.
Victims attended the closing ceremony, notably Munira Subasic, representing the “Mothers of Srebrenica” group who lobbied for justice for the more than 8,000 boys and men who were massacred by Serb forces at Srebrenica in 1995.
Prominent figures included Bosnian Serb military leader Radovan Karadzic, who was convicted in 2016 and sentenced to 40 years, and Ratko Mladic, convicted last month and sentenced to life. Both are appealing their convictions.
The court’s architects hoped that establishing what happened during the war and punishing its worst offenders would help reconcile Serbs, Croats and Bosnian Muslims.
However, Prosecutor Serge Brammertz said while the court brought justice for some, it had not brought the communities together. “Throughout the region war criminals are seen as heroes and victims are ignored”, he said.
At the bittersweet closing ceremony, Alfons Orie, the presiding judge in Mladic’s case, performed part of Handel’s oratio “Solomon”, singing the part of Solomon.
Reporting by Stephanie van den Berg; additional writing by Toby Sterling; editing by Ralph Boulton