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A War Crimes Court Finally Does Its Job

international flags outside the facade of the International Criminal Tribunal for the fomer Yugoslavia
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Photo by Roman Boed.

Is justice deferred still justice?

The question springs to mind in the wake of Radovan Karadzic’s sentencing. The man known as the “Butcher of Bosnia” was found guilty of genocide and other crimes against humanity after a trial by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, a special United Nations court in The Hague, Netherlands. He was sentenced to 40 years in prison.

The crimes in question occurred over 20 years ago, during the Bosnian War. Karadzic was responsible for many of the vilest instances of genocide and crimes against humanity to occur in Europe since the end of World War II, including the protracted siege of Sarajevo. As The Wall Street Journal reported, Judge O-Gon Kwon said that “These are among the most egregious of crimes in international criminal law and include extermination as a crime against humanity and genocide.” Under these circumstances, it is hardly surprising that some critics have expressed dismay that Karadzic did not receive a life sentence, though the 70-year-old may end up effectively serving one.

Among Karadzic’s crimes, the best known and arguably the most heinous was the massacre of Muslim men ostensibly under U.N. protection in a “safe area,” the town of Srebrenica. The lightly armed peacekeepers were overrun by Serb forces in July 1995. More than 8,000 men and boys were executed.

It took some 13 years after the massacre at Srebrenica to capture Karadzic. In contrast, it took less than 10 years to hunt down Osama bin Laden after 9/11.

It took eight more years to convict Karadzic once he was captured, including more than a year between the end of the trial and sentencing. Appeals are still pending. In practice, this does not make much difference, since Karadzic will remain in captivity either way. His imprisonment comes after many years in which he practiced alternative medicine under pseudonyms and the noses of law enforcement, evidently none too eager to sniff him out, in Austria, Serbia and apparently elsewhere. While Karadzic’s freedom is likely over for good, he still had more than a decade after his crimes to attend soccer matches and publish volumes of poetry.

Compare his experience with that of the key figures in the Nazi regime. Nearly all who survived the war had stood trial for their crimes in just a bit over one year from the end of World War II, and all of the Nuremberg trials were concluded by 1949, just four years after the fighting stopped.

You might argue that our modern situation is more complex than the world of the 1940s. But it took no time at all for the war crimes tribunal in The Hague to jail a French reporter for contempt after she disclosed embarrassing details of the court’s dealings with Serbia.

Such is the state of international justice in the second decade of the 21st century. Like every other international institution in Europe, the war crimes tribunal has become a sinecure for its members, whose focus is as much on protecting their own dignity and privilege as in performing the functions for which they were engaged.

Justice delayed is, if not entirely denied, certainly justice diminished. And it is a diminished court in The Hague that limps along with misplaced priorities and a schedule that would have embarrassed any banker back in the Gilded Age. But let’s all give them a big cheer for finally doing their job.

Larry M. Elkin is the founder and president of Palisades Hudson, and is based out of Palisades Hudson’s Fort Lauderdale, Florida headquarters. He wrote several of the chapters in the firm’s book, Looking Ahead: Life, Family, Wealth and Business After 55. His contributions include Chapter 1, “Looking Ahead When Youth Is Behind Us” and Chapter 4, “The Family Business."

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