By Kevin Sullivan and Peter Finn
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, July 24, 2008
THE HAGUE, July 23 -- The arrest of Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader accused of genocide and crimes against humanity, offers a major test -- and, some say, a shot at redemption -- for the huge and costly international court that will try him.
Its last big-name defendant, former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, at times seemed to be in control of his own trial, turning normally somber proceedings into a freewheeling forum in order to air his many political grievances. It was a public relations disaster for the U.N.-affiliated International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, which spends more than $300 million a year.
An announcement from Karadzic's lawyer Wednesday suggested that its new defendant is hoping to do the same. Karadzic will represent himself before the Hague-based tribunal, giving him the same legal standing that Milosevic used to inject politics at every turn.
"This is the critical point for the tribunal," said Paul Williams, a former U.S. State Department lawyer who helped establish the organization. "The Karadzic case gives the tribunal an opportunity to reclaim its mandate."
Created by a 1993 U.N. resolution, the tribunal has indicted 161 people in connection with the Balkans wars of the 1990s, the worst violence in Europe since World War II. The court has a $310 million annual budget and more than 1,100 employees from 82 countries. Critics have accused it of being too expensive and ineffective, bringing too few people to justice in view of its vast resources; Milosevic gave it a reputation for unruliness and indecision that lingers today.
Olga Kavran, a spokeswoman for the tribunal's lead prosecutor, Serge Brammertz, disputes that image. "The level of work done here has not decreased -- quite the contrary," she said in an interview. "But the perception is that the only case we ever handled was Milosevic."
Several analysts said the tribunal now has a chance to learn from the mistakes of the Milosevic trial, which ended without a verdict four years after it began when the defendant died in his cell.
"The strategic mistake of the Milosevic case was the ambition of the tribunal to seek historical truth and over-explain everything at trial," said Dejan Anastasijevic, a Belgrade-based journalist who has covered the tribunal extensively and who testified against Milosevic at the trial. "They let Milosevic use it as a political forum," he said. "With Karadzic they need to focus on the crimes, not the politics. They need to be . . . lean and mean."
Many analysts expect the judges to be more forceful in reining in political speeches and insisting that prosecution and defense alike stick to the specific facts in dispute.
"This is the tribunal's 15th birthday, and for international institutions, 15 years old is still very young," said Michael Scharf, a war crimes court specialist who teaches law at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. "The institution is maturing nicely."
The tribunal has convicted 56 people and acquitted 10 others. Kavran said 27 people are currently on trial, eight are in the appeal process, and 10 others are in various stages of the pretrial or pre-appeal process.
Two who have been indicted remain at large, including Ratko Mladic, the former Bosnian Serb military leader.
Other cases were withdrawn, transferred to national jurisdiction, or discontinued after the death of the accused.
Kavran rejected much of the criticism of the Milosevic trial. She said many of its problems were caused by Milosevic's poor health. Rather than all-day sessions Monday through Friday, the trial was reduced to three half-day sessions a week to allow Milosevic adequate time to rest, dragging out the proceedings.
"It was a large, complex and I would say unprecedented case," Kavran said. "Of course we learn from every case. And of course you always make mistakes, but you learn from them and try not to repeat them."
Kavran also disputed claims that the tribunal is too expensive. About 12 percent of the budget goes to legal aid for the accused, she said. The tribunal, which is located 1,000 miles from where the crimes took place, has to spend millions to conduct investigations.
A major trial at the tribunal costs about $50 million, according to Scharf. A "mega-trial" in the United States, such as the Oklahoma City bombing case, can cost $70 million or more.
Given the thousands of deaths associated with the indictment against Karadzic, the "per victim" cost is not unreasonable, he said: "The $50 million it costs for his trial is going to be a bargain from that point of view."
In Sarajevo, the Bosnian city to which Karadzic's forces laid siege for more than three years, news of the arrest led people to cheer and honk car horns.
But on the streets of Belgrade, the capital of Serbia, the tribunal remains deeply unpopular, though the government of President Boris Tadic is cooperating with it.
"It's a first-class political court; it's a farce," said Jovo Bajic, 62, an unemployed man interviewed in central Belgrade. "Serbian people are unprotected there, and without any allies."
"The Serbian people don't trust The Hague; they think it's one-sided," said government spokesman Milivoje Mihajlovic. He said the acquittal in April of Ramush Haradinaj, a former Kosovo prime minister and the highest-ranking ethnic Albanian to be brought before the court, added to the public perception that the court is biased against Serbs.
"But we need to swallow a few bitter pills and keep developing," he said. "Serbia only expects a fair process. It's in the essential interest of Serbia to resolve its past."
Anastasijevic, the Belgrade journalist, said many people in each of the former Yugoslav republics see the tribunal as a political body trying to demonize them and sanitize their enemies' records. "It's very unpopular, but that's quite normal," he said. "No nation takes it kindly when their nationals are tried in a foreign country by foreign courts. I think it will take a generation in the Balkans before we can have a serious debate about war crimes."
Biljana Kovacevic, a lawyer who runs a human rights group in Belgrade, blamed much of the public anger directed at the tribunal on "propaganda" by political elites trying to protect themselves and their allies. "There has been too much propaganda, but I think there's real momentum for people to accept that crimes were committed in our name," she said. "The worst crimes were committed by the Serbian side and we have to face that."
She said she believed the tribunal would handle the Karadzic case better than the Milosevic case. "It is a new challenge for them," she said. "But I have a good feeling it is not going to be a repeat."
The tribunal is scheduled to shut down in 2011, but spokeswoman Nerma Jelacic said its life would surely be extended to deal with the Karadzic case and those of the two fugitives, should they be caught.
But the court would not need to continue operating in its large headquarters in The Hague, where visitors can buy tribunal baseball caps, T-shirts and coffee mugs. Nor would it have to continue employing so many people.
Russia proposed last month that the tribunal, and a second U.N.-affiliated body dealing with crimes against humanity committed in Rwanda, be closed next year. Vitaly Churkin, the Russian ambassador to the United Nations, said the prosecutions should be turned over to national courts. "We do not see why those countries should be denied their sovereign right of exercising national justice," he said at U.N. headquarters in New York.
Anastasijevic called the Russian proposal unrealistic. "National courts in post-conflict countries cannot cope with the most serious war criminals," he said. In his view, the tribunal has proved that international courts are the proper venue for those cases.
"The flaws of the tribunal, and they were serious flaws, should not kill the idea of international justice," he said.
Finn reported from Belgrade.