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Faster Justice for the Balkans

New York Times Editorial
November 28, 2003

In its nearly 10 years, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has been fair and thorough. But it has also been expensive and lumbering. Now, at the urging of the Bush administration, the Hague-based tribunal is speeding up proceedings by allowing those accused to plead guilty to lesser charges. Plea bargains are controversial for Europeans unfamiliar with the practice. But they make swifter justice possible. Moreover, the confessions required for a deal are finally helping the tribunal to fulfill one of its central missions: persuading Balkan nations accustomed to considering themselves victims that their forces committed terrible crimes.

The tribunal's new urgency stems from the need to save money. Countries whose donations finance the tribunal are perpetually deadbeat — the tribunal stays alive by borrowing from the United Nations peacekeeping account. The Security Council wants new indictments to end in 2004 and trials in 2008. But two of the Bosnian war's major criminals, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, are still at large, and they must not be allowed to escape justice. Either the tribunal should find a way to reconvene if they are caught later, or they must be tried elsewhere, perhaps by the new International Criminal Court.

The switch to plea bargains means that some lower-level soldiers caught early get longer sentences than superiors who can take advantage of the new system. This is unfortunate, but even the reduced sentences produced by plea bargains — as little as eight years — are still acceptable. Soldiers who pleaded are also now testifying against their superiors, which makes conviction more likely.

More important than speed, the plea bargains are making the tribunal more credible in the Balkans. Many Serbs have clung to the myth that they are innocent victims and hold accusations of Serb war crimes to be lies created by a biased tribunal. Last year, for example, the government of the Serb portion of Bosnia issued a report about the town of Srebrenica, where Serb forces executed 7,500 Muslim men and boys in cold blood in 1995. The report said that the only Muslims killed were soldiers, some of whom died fighting each other.

Such a statement could not be made today — not after commanders of the brigades that assaulted Srebrenica detailed, as part of their plea agreements, how Serb forces planned and carried out the massacre. Earlier this month, another report by the same Bosnian Serb government leaked — this one confirming that civilians were murdered at Srebrenica. Recently the president of the former Yugoslavia apologized to Bosnia for Serb crimes. In September, he and his Croatian counterpart had exchanged apologies. Such acknowledgments of guilt would not have happened if soldiers were not confessing to these crimes, and they are crucial to breaking the cycle of ethnic violence in the Balkans.

 

 
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