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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

UN chief pays tribute to Yugoslav war crimes court as it closes doors

A ceremony was held on Thursday to mark the end of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, whose groundbreaking work brought to justice those behind the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II

Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres speaks in the Ridderzaal (Knights' Hall), during the closing ceremony of the Yugoslavia Tribunal (The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, The Netherlands, 21 December 2017. EPA/ROBIN UTRECH
Secretary-General of the United Nations Antonio Guterres speaks in the Ridderzaal (Knights' Hall), during the closing ceremony of the Yugoslavia Tribunal (The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague, The Netherlands, 21 December 2017. EPA/ROBIN UTRECH

The UN war crimes court that brought to justice those behind some of the worst atrocities in Europe since World War II closed its doors on Thursday, following a tribute from UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

"Today it is common practice for the United Nations Security Council to call for the perpetrators of atrocities to be held accountable… Accountability has taken root in our collective consciousness," Mr Guterres said, as he described the legacy of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) during a closing ceremony in The Hague.

Mr Guterres told attendees at the ceremony that the tribunal's huge archive of evidence and court records would be one of its key legacies and a resource for battling revisionism and denial.

"These records ensure that the world will not forget, that history cannot be rewritten, and that the victims' voices will continue to resound down the decades," he said.

The court - the first of its kind since the post-World War II trials in Nuremberg and Tokyo - prosecuted atrocities committed during the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, and put former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic on trial.

Some of the biggest names of the 1991-1995 Balkans conflicts who once rained terror on the region have been tried and handed long prison terms for crimes including the Srebrenica genocide in 1995.

Last month, Bosnian Serb Gen. Ratko Mladic was convicted of genocide for the massacre of thousands of unarmed men and boys at Srebrenica, Bosnia in 1995.

Days later, Bosnian Croat general Slobodan Praljak committed suicide in the courtroom by drinking a cyanide potion moments after his conviction and 20-year sentence were upheld.

In total, the tribunal sat for more than 10,000 days of trial, and heard testimony from nearly 5,000 people.

90 individuals were sentenced for their crimes, including genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

And now after 24 years, the ICTY is shutting its doors.

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"Beyond these numbers, the tribunal gave a voice to victims," Mr Guterres said.

“People who had experienced atrocious violence and tragic losses, including women and girls, were given the opportunity to tell their stories in court, to place their experiences on the record, and to see the perpetrators of crimes against them held accountable. This, in itself, has contributed to the healing process.”

He added that he “saluted the courage” of all those who came to the Tribunal to “guarantee that justice could be served”.

The ICTY has widely been seen as a pioneer in creating the contemporary architecture of international criminal justice.

Mr Guterres noted that the establishment of the Tribunal was followed by that of many more entities to ensure accountability, including the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, the Special Tribunal for Lebanon “and, of course, the International Criminal Court”.

“Indeed, without the United Nations tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda, there might never have been a permanent International Criminal Court, the central institution of the international criminal justice system today.”

Mr Guterres warned that “the cause of criminal justice is a long-term undertaking”, saying: “We must remain attentive and resolute.”

But he added: “I am confident that, with the support of the international community, international criminal justice will continue to develop, and more countries where atrocities were committed will initiate or continue prosecutions in their own courts.”