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Addressing War Crimes in Former Yugoslavia

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Yugoslavia fell apart in stages, and violence accompanied each of these stages. The first war was brief, a 10-day standoff between the Yugoslav Army and Slovenian forces in the summer of 1991, and there were few casualties. The Milosevic government in Serbia was not happy with Slovenia's secession, but the Serbian population there was minuscule and the two sides didn't share any adjoining territory.

The next war, over Croatia's independence, was considerably more brutal. Between 1991 and 1995, the Yugoslav Army and Serbian paramilitaries occupied sections of Croatia. In mid-1995, the Croatian army reclaimed this territory, pushing out the Yugoslav Army and expelling many of the ethnic Serbs who had been living there for generations. Overlapping with this conflict, from 1992 to 1995, the Serbian and Croatian leaderships along with their respective paramilitaries sought to carve territory out of a newly independent Bosnia. An agreement signed in Dayton, Ohio brought an end to the fighting. The fourth and final major war, between Serbia and the breakaway territory of Kosovo, took place between 1998 and 1999. The terms of Kosovo's independence are still being worked out 15 years later.

These four wars generated a huge number of civilian casualties, human rights violations, and war crimes. To assess these crimes and determine culpability, even as the wars continued to rage, the United Nations established the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993. It was the first war crimes tribunal since the end of World War II.

Over the last 20 years, the ICTY assembled an vast amount of documentation, charged more than 160 individuals, and convicted 69 people, including politicians and military personnel from all parts of former Yugoslavia. It hasn't wrapped up its work yet. Serbian politician Vojislav Seselj was detained in 2003, and his trial is currently ongoing. The trials of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic are not expected to finish until 2015 and 2016 respectively.

Predrag Dojcinovic began working in the linguistic, analytical, and research section of the Office of the Prosecutor at the ICTY in 1998. His background is in philosophy and linguistics, and he has written about the role of propaganda in the perpetration of war crimes and other atrocities.

In an interview last January in De Balie, a cultural center in Amsterdam, we talked about the impact of the ICTY, beginning with the period of war. "Legal justice did exist in former Yugoslavia. We had laws!" Dojcinovic pointed out. "But in a war-torn country, where the war is still going on, concepts of law and justice are very confusing for people living under the influences of propaganda. The Tribunal represented the notion of legal justice, which could counteract the concepts of historical or cultural justice. That was one big contribution to begin with. People were forced to think of evidence, indictments, trials. All these legal notions began to circulate. Whether you liked it or not is a different issue. But they were out there as part of a normal set of values that any reasonably well-organized democratic society would need."

The ICTY has also proven the adage concerning the speed at which the wheels of justice turn. "The Tribunal has been a slow and bureaucratic process," Dojcinovic added. "The proceedings should have been faster and more efficient. That must be incorporated into the notion of justice. I know it's difficult and complex because I worked there. I don't want to judge anyone in this enterprise. But I think it can be done better and faster."

We talked about how he went from being an editor and writer in Belgrade to the staff of the ICTY, the advocacy work he did in Amsterdam in the 1990s, and some of the recent judgments of the Tribunal (including, thanks to subsequent communication by email, several that took place after our initial discussion).

The Interview

In 1998, you went to work at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). How did that happen?

The tribunal was officially started by a UN Security Council Resolution in 1993. It got up in running in 1994, and the first indictments were issued in 1995 and 1996. I first worked as a consultant to a U.S. broadcasting corporation that in 1996 reported on the first ICTY trial of Dusan Tadic, including the trial of Drazen Erdemovic for the crimes committed in Srebrenica, as well as the public hearing on the indictments against Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. In 1998, I was contacted by a colleague in the translation department who told me they were looking for a researcher to conduct major research into the first collection of original documents seized by the Office of the Prosecutor in the region. That's how I got my job at the Tribunal.

At that time, the documents were still, I believe, seized involuntarily. This was before the official cooperation with the governments from the region was established. This was a collection of documents seized in the formerly Croat-controlled part of Bosnia - the so-called "Herzeg-Bosna" - related to two major trials - Tihomir Blaskic and Dario Kordic. After that, we managed to seize major collections in Bosnia related to the Serb cases. When Milosevic fell in 2000, we got full cooperation from the new authorities in Serbia as well. We managed to get access to the archives, to the suspects, to many witnesses, which we couldn't easily do up until that moment, certainly not in Serbia or Montenegro.

My information from that time comes from the memoir of the chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte. It was an important book but basically quite boring, because it was all about her demanding information, not getting it, and going back and demanding it all over again. How did you experience that constant rejection as a researcher?

These first several years were extremely frustrating. It was different from other war crime tribunals, due to the fact that Yugoslavia was a fairly modern country compared to other war-torn regions. Everything was well documented, like in Nazi Germany when the rechsstaat and the archives served the Nuremburg trials so well.

It was extremely frustrating for many people. It was much more so for the people who were leading these struggles, and less so for me. At first we just received these documents. Then, when this bubble broke, we were sent there to collect the materials. Up until 2000, you knew that the documents were there, you didn't have direct access to them, and you were also afraid they would be hidden or destroyed, which did happen to some extent.

They had the opportunity to destroy them all, but they didn't.

No, they didn't. Some of these people were involved in serious crimes, and they saw this as their life goal. For some of them it was art. Hitler called his propaganda a "work of art." You don't have so many artists who are willing to destroy their work of art (unless they are conceptual artists who destroy their art as part of their philosophy). In this case, they wanted to preserve these documents for posterity, and some of them sincerely believed in their work. If you are like this, you don't want to destroy part of your life and beliefs just like that. You want people to refer to you. What others perceive as a crime you see as a serious body of work.

Like a body of academic work.

Yes, this was so in the case of Vojislav Seselj, whose judgment is pending now. He perceived this as serious academic work, and his so-called "scholarly contribution" has been used as evidence in the courtroom.

When you went back to Serbia to collect these materials, how were you perceived by the people you were interacting with?

At the time when I went, obviously there was a different government in place. The people who received us and other members of the Tribunal were kind and professional, although I know that part of that professionalism was to protect a number of documents and protect the state against prosecution as well. The two periods - before and after Milosevic - were quite different (even though it was Milosevic who initially, ironically enough in his case, endorsed the cooperation with the Tribunal). When Zoran Djindjic came to power, we were given serious assistance. They deserve a lot of the credit for the work of the Tribunal, especially the Office of the Prosecutor, from 2000 onward.

And you interviewed people as well?

Yes, I did. But I can't talk about that. I hope to talk about it one day. To conduct these interviews, I had to learn specific aspects of international law. Apart from working with some of the greatest international lawyers, which was an incredibly rewarding experience, I had to teach myself law. I also took courses in international law. These were very different situations than academic or journalistic interviews. It was a very different situation from my life in Holland before I joined the Tribunal or my life in the former Yugoslavia. I have to give credit to a number of lawyers and investigators who helped me a lot. Now I'm certified as a war crime analyst. And I'm not the only one. There are still quite a few people working at the Tribunal who changed their careers as a result of this experience.

Do you see yourself continuing to do war crimes work?

For the rest of the interview, click here.