Capital Sarajevo
Time Zone CET (GMT+1)
Country Code 387
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Currency Bosnian Convertible Mark (1EUR = 1,96 BAM)
Land Area 51,129 sq km
Population 4 million
Language Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian
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Insights into the Hague Tribunal and Trends in International Justice: Interview with Sir Geoffrey Nice

In this interview with Sir Geoffrey Nice, QC, a former chief prosecutor of Slobodan Milosevic at the ICTY, Bosnia correspondent Lana Pasic explores the ways in which international tribunals contribute to the establishment of common truth and reconciliation in the Balkans- and what the future of the tribunal and international justice holds for other conflict regions. Sir Geoffrey Nice currently serves as a law professor at Gresham College in London.

Lana Pasic: Considering your prominent role in the ICTY, maybe as an introduction we can talk about the international tribunal itself, what it aimed to achieve and how far has it done so?

Sir Geoffrey Nice: All these tribunals aim to achieve particular mandates for trying individuals who have been involved in conflicts. But they also always have much broader objectives, typically including to bring about peace and reconciliation and to stop impunity. \


While Sir Geoffrey Nice notes that in theory participants in recent Libyan or Syrian violence “can be tried,” he finds “it unlikely that there will be another ad hoc tribunal of the Yugoslav model.”

Thus far these broader objectives may be seen as over-ambitious and I am never quite sure that it is that wise to advance them as justifications for tribunals, because if the broader objectives are not met then the tribunal as a whole may be  judged to have failed.

That said, the Yugoslav tribunal, has probably been very successful in terms of the number of the people that have been tried and the number of verdicts returned that have commanded respect.

Unfortunately, there have been a number of things that have been less than satisfactory in the tribunal, such as the conduct of senior management in some of the cases.

Of course it is quite difficult for the tribunal to escape from some characterisation of its being political in a way – all these courts are political and there is nothing necessarily wrong with that. It’s when they are shown to be vulnerable to the political pressure of an improper kind that it becomes troubling.

Lana Pasic:  In terms of these broader goals, which are of course  very difficult to achieve, when we talk about peace and reconciliation, and creating a common history, to what extent has the Tribunal for Yugoslavia focused on that goal?

Sir Geoffrey Nice: I don’t think its senior figures, either the prosecutors or the judges, would acknowledge that they focused on leaving a history of the region or the conflict behind; they are always very clear, and rightly, that it is not their function to write history. But simply by the amount of evidence that they listen to, record and leave for posterity – and indeed by the verdicts that they return in relation to particular cases – the output of the tribunal is inevitably going to become part of the history of the region.

What people have to keep in mind, when looking at trial evidence or the verdicts, is that the evidence led by the prosecution and the defence may have been carefully selected and may not reflect what actually happened.

Lana Pasic: In the case of trials in the Balkans, verdicts of the courts are against individuals; however, they are often taken as a national matter, rather than a matter of an individual who has committed crimes.

Sir Geoffrey Nice: That is a very important point. For historic and good reason, the modern tribunals can only try individuals. What I always found very interesting in the trials was that Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia were all organised through pre-existing or new government bodies, operating in standard government ways.

Generally speaking, activities in the conflict were being funded by institutions of government. A lot that was done was the responsibility of people around the equivalent of a cabinet table- that is a government responsibility; I am not sure it is that helpful always just to pick just one man and say he is responsible. You can try to pin decisions on an individual, but the decisions are usually not one individual’s; they are decisions of governments or parts of governments. And if you want to control conflict by law, then you have to be able to say that decision-makers and leaders have the responsibility.

Lana Pasic: I would also like to talk about different type of state responsibility and trials. Some of the war crimes are now tried in Bosnia. In light of this, and Bosnia’s structural and institutional challenges, does the Bosnian state have a responsibility for conducting the trials on its own?

Sir Geoffrey Nice: Many people regard it as preferable that war crime trials should be conducted in a local setting, as soon as possible and whenever possible, unless it is either too dangerous or too difficult to do. Of course, international tribunals, which are hugely expensive, can only manage a very limited number of cases, and for this reason alone it is preferable that the trials are conducted at local courts.

I don’t know enough about the local Bosnian courts and how efficiently they work, but I think that it might have been a very good idea to conduct as many as possible [a number] of trials there. It would have served several beneficial purposes in the region; it would have been better, arguably, than trials being dealt with remotely and sent down to Bosnia or Serbia, almost as entertainment television.

Lana Pasic: In a context of local trials, and thinking of the examples such as the Rwandan gachacha system and the TRC in South Africa, I can’t help but wonder if this kind of system within the community, or at least within the country might have raised greater awareness about the truth, about common history, understanding what has happened, and eventually, through a long and difficult process to reconciliation.

Sir Geoffrey Nice: I think most people would think that functioning truth commissions were more likely to achieve these results than simple trial systems.  But for truth commissions to be effective, you have to have a starting point of willingness by all sides to reveal the truth having a common purpose in doing so.

In South Africa it was comparatively straightforward, there were just two parties, one was in power and the other one was not but was compelled by various factors to engage. In somewhere like Bosnia where you’ve got Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Croats and other minorities, under absolutely uninspiring leadership, where are you going to find leadership that could make a truth commission successful?

Lana Pasic: In spite of all the flaws that the institution has, the work of tribunal continues. Considering the contemporary global context of recent uprisings and the case of Syria, there have been some indications that certain individuals from Libya and Syria might be tried in tribunals similar to that of the former Yugoslavia. Where do you see this going forward?

Geoffrey Nice: Well, offences committed by individuals in Syria of course can be tried in the permanent International Criminal Court, and that is what they have been considering doing. Unlike in the case of Libya, there seems to be political reluctance from the Security Council to do this. It may be that being too willing to refer a case to the ICC limits your ability to negotiate politically a diplomatic solution to the problem.

But in theory, they can be tried. It is unlikely that there will be another ad hoc tribunal of the Yugoslav model, certainly [not] in the short term. The ICC, despite its flaws, has an important role to play and it is better to see the whole thing as a work in progress and keep a firm eye on advantages that do flow from these courts.

Lana Pasic: Thank you so much for you time Sir Geoffrey, it has been most interesting.

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