For the ICTY to have contributed to reconciliation in the former Yugoslavia, there first had to be a process of reconciliation to contribute to. There was not. Since the end of the series of conflicts which marked the breakup of Yugoslavia there has not been anything resembling a genuine reconciliation effort by the political leaders of countries or different ethnic groups. Except for the work of some human rights groups and some symbolic gestures, the discourse has been overwhelmingly nationalistic and divisive. The myths of “our” victimhood and “liberation struggle” versus “their” genocidal aggression still form the basis of national narratives of all the peoples of the formerly common country.
However, although we are far from a genuine reckoning with the truth about the atrocities committed during the Nineties, this is not for the lack of facts. And this is where the most significant value of ICTY’s contribution resides. The work of the ICTY is monumentally important for its contribution in establishing the responsibility for and illuminating the circumstances of some of the most serious crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia.
It is because of the ICTY’s investigations and trials that we today know what took place and who was responsible for the genocide in Srebrenica. And not only Srebrenica, but also Prijedor, Vukovar, Dubrovnik, Čelebići, Suva Reka, Brčko, Sarajevo, Hrtkovci, Travnik, Lapusnik and countless other places where war crimes and crimes against humanity were committed from 1991 to 2000. Millions of pages of documents, thousands of witness statements, expert analysis and perpetrators’ testimonies were built into establishing entire command structures of criminal responsibility going all the way up to the most senior levels.
Who in their right mind could imagine trials in local courts of heads of state, government ministers and army commanders like Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić, Jadranko Prlić, Rasim Delić, Milan Milutinović, Jovica Stanišić, or other powerful figures tried by the ICTY? At the same time, the evidence gathered by the ICTY has not only led to the trials of the most responsible, but it catalysed the prosecution of war crimes in the courts in the former Yugoslavia. The mountains of dossiers ICTY transferred to local jurisdictions has given them the basis to continue prosecuting direct perpetrators for years to come.
The ICTY was not perfect, just like no institution manned by human beings is. Its judges and prosecutors have made mistakes and decisions which will continue to be debated by legal scholars and other experts. Its political masters have often left it without the support and tools to fully implement its broader mandate of “contributing to the establishment and maintenance of a lasting peace”. Some of its most senior officials failed to see the people of the former Yugoslavia as ICTY’s primary constituents and devote far more time and resources to communicating with world’s capitals rather than communities they were serving.
However, having recognized all this, there is no doubt that the ICTY is by far the most important institution to the desperately needed reckoning with the traumatic recent past of the region. If we are one day ready to embark on the road of genuine reconciliation based on truth and accountability for the atrocities committed during the Nineties, the ICTY’s work will be our starting point. If we ever become ready to squarely face the underlying causes for the violence of the Nineties, the ICTY’s work will be crucial to our success. Just imagine where we would start from if the ICTY had never existed.