Yugoslavia tribunal closes, leaving a powerful legacy of war crimes justice

The court that put Slobodan Milošević in the dock is to be formally dissolved this week after 24 years and 161 indictments. After sitting for 10,800 days, hearing 4,650 witnesses and digesting 2.5m pages of transcripts, the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) will be formally dissolved on Thursday.

A closing ceremony in The Hague, attended by the United Nations secretary general, António Guterres, will mark the end of 24 years of investigations and prosecutions that delivered 161 high-profile indictments.

The war crimes tribunal put the former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević, the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić and Gen Ratko Mladic in the dock. Established in 1993, it was the first tribunal of its kind since hearings in Nuremberg and Tokyo at the end of the second world war.

Ninety individuals have been sentenced for genocide, crimes against humanity or other crimes. Politicians and senior military officers, judgment after judgment confirmed, will no longer escape with impunity but be held responsible for their actions, even in wartime.

Ultimate success in hunting down fugitives, however, has taken decades and there has been criticism that the tribunal represented victor’s justice: about two-thirds of those charged were Serbs. Supporters of the court countered that the worst atrocities of the conflict were inflicted by Serb forces on Bosnian civilians. Closure of the ICTY highlights a shift in international justice away from discrete tribunals – imposing justice after successive conflicts in the Balkans, Rwanda or Sierra Leone – towards the more ambitious goal of universal jurisdiction under the international criminal court (ICC).

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