Put war criminals behind bars

Cody Corliss

October 3, 2009

When it comes to genocide, numbers can’t do justice. It’s difficult to come to grips with 100 mass executions, let alone thousands.

This summer, one of the most notorious Serbian mass murderers was convicted and sentenced for ethnic cleansing atrocities in the former Yugoslavia. Milan Lukic, a Bosnian Serb, was found guilty of murder and crimes against humanity by the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. He was convicted of 133 murders, though that number likely represents only a fraction of his true offenses.

Lukic led a Serb paramilitary group in a reign of terror in the Bosnian Muslim-majority city of Visegrad. Within a few months of the war’s start in 1992, most of the area’s Muslims were dead or had fled.

Specifically, Lukic exterminated civilians – men, women, the elderly, newborns. In two particularly heinous incidents, Lukic and his band herded Muslims into homes, where they proceeded to lock the doors, board up the windows, and torch the dwellings. As the houses burned, Lukic lingered outside to shoot anyone who managed to escape the flames.

At sentencing, Judge Patrick Robinson observed that Lukic’s actions rank high “in the all-too-long, sad and wretched history of man’s inhumanity to man.”

Aside from a few short paragraphs in the national newspapers, however, Milan Lukic’s trial and conviction received little mention in U.S. media. In fact, the atrocities in the former Yugoslavia are rarely examined – excepting Hillary Clinton’s misstatements about Bosnian sniper fire.

Although the Balkan tragedy is quickly becoming a bloody footnote in Europe’s 20th-century history, the U.N. International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) continues to try to convict war criminals. Since establishment of the tribunal in 1993, it has indicted 161 individuals for violations of international humanitarian law. The largest war crimes tribunal since Nuremburg is scheduled to close its doors by the end of 2010.

But even with perpetual budget overruns and administrative squabbles, something incredible is happening in The Hague. War criminals are being brought to justice.

When the tribunal was initially established, many international observers questioned if it could succeed. Most doubted if Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic would ever face justice. He died in a Dutch prison cell while standing trial. Serbia arrested former political boss Radovan Karadzic in July 2008. That trial is now in progress.

The ICTY is a model for other tribunals, such as ones for genocide in Rwanda and Sierra Leone.

Lukic was convicted of 133 murders. It’s an incredible number – too big to truly comprehend. I worked on the prosecution case. I don’t think of the numbers. But I do think of the survivors. Some escaped fires badly burned. Since they were unable to safely obtain medical treatment, maggots grew in their wounds. One witness was a young boy during the war. He and a friend played on the street when they were apprehended by Lukic. The boy looked on as his friend was shot and thrown in the river, never to be seen again.

But even with Lukic’s conviction and other triumphs, some mass murderers remain at large, most notably Ratko Mladic, the Serbian general responsible for Srebrenica and Sarajevo, two of the worst massacres in modern Europe.

Today, Serbia is lobbying for membership in the European Union. And as luck would have it, my path crossed with Serbian president Boris Tadic as he made a pitch for open borders at the annual St. Gallen Symposium in Switzerland. There, I asked Tadic of the prospects for catching Gen. Mladic.

President Tadic, who came to power in 2008 under a platform of finding and arresting General Mladic, assured a packed auditorium that Serbia was making a valiant effort to bring these fugitives to justice. The new government had arrested Karadzic, for example. But in spite of the new government’s efforts, some Serbs have helped its old leaders avoid the shackles of the international community. A month after my interaction with President Tadic, television footage aired showing the general enjoying a happy retirement.

Still, in spite of the setbacks, many responsible for the Balkan tragedy have stood trial. It’s a prospect that seemed unlikely 15 years ago. The U.N. international tribunals are often targets for criticism, but because of their work, war criminals sit behind bars. Genocide no longer means impunity.

Corliss, a Wetzel County native, worked in the ICTY prosecutor’s office during the Milan Lukic trial as part of a cooperative agreement between Cornell Law School and the United Nations.

Source: Sunday Gazette


One Response to “Put war criminals behind bars”

  1. Horia Puscuta Says:

    Serbs really do try to wash away their sins ? So far, they don’t…

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