Written by Nicola Duckworth, Director of Amnesty International's Europe and Central Asia Programme
As the trial of Radovan Karadzic at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague resumes, his prosecution is undoubtedly a huge step forward towards bringing justice to the tens of thousands of victims of Bosnia and Herzegovina. But are a small number of high profile trials in The Hague enough to heal the wounds caused by the horrific violations of human rights committed by all sides to the conflict?
Amnesty International has repeatedly called for the work of the Tribunal to be complemented by comprehensive national efforts in the region to investigate and prosecute the tens thousands of other crimes, involving middle and lower ranking suspects that the Tribunal does not have the capacity to deal with.
While the resumption of the trial of Radovan Karadzic has thrown the spotlight back onto The Hague Tribunal, for which the UN Security Council has recommended an arbitrary 2010 deadline for closure, we have serious concerns about whether enough work is being done to enable local criminal justice systems to administer justice in the region. Victims of crimes like murder, rape and forcible deportation have been waiting for justice for almost 13 years since the war ended and continue to suffer without truth or reparations.
We are not saying that there have not been some efforts at a national level to investigate and prosecute crimes of the 1990s conflict. But the reality is that they have been impeded by a wavering political will, coupled with limited judicial capacity and a lack of co-operation between countries on the sharing of evidence as well as the arrest and extradition of the accused. In addition, only a handful of suspects are being tried.
In Croatia, Amnesty International has criticised the failure to investigate and prosecute crimes committed by the Croatian army and police forces, including the murder and disappearance of more than 100 Croatian Serbs in the Sisak area during the 1991-1995 war.
Montenegrin cases have been the subject of political obstruction and there are concerns about the effectiveness of national proceedings. No progress has been made in the criminal case of the disappearance of 83 Bosniaks, while civil claims brought by the families have been rejected by the National Appeals Court.
In Serbia, the pace of investigations is slow and the independence of the judiciary is questionable. Sixteen years after the forced exodus of hundreds of Vojvodina Croats which left 14 people dead, no investigative action has been taken. Furthermore, in those cases that are being prosecuted, national prosecutors involved in cases have been regularly threatened and there are concerns about the effectiveness of national witness protection systems.
In Kosovo there is a lack of effective investigations and prosecutions, particularly of crimes of sexual violence, an absence of witness protection and a declining number of international judges and prosecutors. Impunity remains in over 3,000 cases of enforced disappearances and abductions.
And while a War Crimes Chamber has been established with international support in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Amnesty International is concerned that the planned withdrawal of international staff could undermine its effectiveness, unless sufficient resources and training programmes are established for local judges, prosecutors and staff. While other cases have been prosecuted by cantonal and district courts, serious doubts remain about their capacity to deal with such complex cases.
As pressure mounts for the closure of the ICTY, more work must be done to deliver the longer-lasting benefits of strengthened national justice systems. Likewise international monitoring of local war crimes trials must continue until we witness the political commitment and comprehensive reform required to equip them to deliver justice.
The international community should use its influence in relations with these countries to call for an end to impunity for all cases of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes. In doing so, we also have to make sure that national justice systems in the region receive the necessary support for training national staff, capacity-building of local judicial systems and establishing effective witness protection programmes and truth and reparation mechanisms.
While the trial of Radovan Karadzic is likely to be completed before the Tribunal closes, trials at the ICTY are not enough for the victims of the Balkans conflict. We have a duty to make sure their rights to justice, truth and reparations are realised. If not, the dispensation of justice across the former Yugoslavia may remain an unfinished task. And it is the thousands of victims of the crimes who will pay the price.