Inaccessibility of ICTY’s records could endanger its legacy

25 May 2016 by Vladimir Petrovic

Ever since Justice Robert Jackson memorably promised to ‘establish incredible events by credible evidence’ in Nuremberg, expectations from international tribunals regarding establishment of historical record remain high. This is particularly the case with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The first international criminal court since the Nuremberg, the ICTY even explicated these implicit prospects, including establishment of facts among its crucial achievements listed on its website: "The tribunal has established beyond a reasonable doubt crucial facts related to crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia. In doing so, the tribunal’s judges have carefully reviewed testimonies of eyewitnesses, survivors and perpetrators, forensic data and often previously unseen documentary and video evidence. The tribunal’s judgements have contributed to creating a historical record, combating denial and preventing attempts at revisionism and provided the basis for future transitional justice initiatives in the region."

 

An ICTY exhibit, a satelite image of the Branjevo military farm where around 1,000 Bosnian Muslim men were executed in 1995 as part of the Srebrenica massacre (Photo: Flickr/ICTY)
Image caption: 
An ICTY exhibit, a satelite image of the Branjevo military farm where around 1,000 Bosnian Muslim men were executed in 1995 as part of the Srebrenica massacre (Photo: Flickr/ICTY)

Statistics seems to confirm some of this. Over the two decades of its existence, the ICTY has indicted 161 persons, sentencing 80 and acquitting 18. Twelve cases are still on trial or on appeal, the rest ending with transfer or termination. Taken together, these proceedings were conducted during 10,800 trials days, featured the appearance of 4,650 witnesses and have generated 2,5 million pages of court transcripts, according to the courts own statistics.

Historical relevance of this material becomes apparent if one thinks of the profile of the accused. Among them, there are one undisputed and no less than four self-proclaimed heads of state, at least four prime ministers and five chiefs of general staff as well. Ministers, municipality leaders, military and police dignitaries feature in the dozens. Also, the scope of the charges ranged from ‘only’ war crimes to crimes against humanity and genocide. Substantiation of these cases therefore involved both testimonies of high-ranking officials and documents usually considered top secret. These trials indeed opened a privileged window for revisiting the darkest page of recent history of former Yugoslav countries.

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