Bosnia War Crimes: The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and U.S. Policy

War crimes were an integral part of the 1992-1995 Bosnian war. Bosnian Serb militias drove hundreds of thousands of non-Serb civilians from their homes, committing tens of thousands of acts of murder, rape and torture, in a systematic policy of "ethnic cleansing." Most observers believe most war crimes committed by the Bosnian Serbs from 1992 until the end of the war in 1995 were a vital part of the political and military strategy of Bosnian Serb leaders. Although Serbs are seen by many observers as the main culprits, Croats and Muslims also committed substantial numbers of war crimes during the conflict.

Reports of war crimes in Bosnia have had an important impact on U.S. and Western policy toward the conflict. Pictures in Western media of Serb detention camps where inmates were routinely starved, tortured and raped, as well as carnage caused by the shelling of Sarajevo, provoked international outrage and calls for (usually unspecified) action. U.S. and European policymakers felt a need to respond to the emotional issue of war crimes, but did not want to be drawn into the Bosnian war as combatants or policemen. The U.N. Security Council established The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia on May 25, 1993 (Resolution 808). It is the first international tribunal for prosecution of war crimes since the Nuremberg and Tokyo trials fifty years ago. The Tribunal initially got off to a slow start in part due to difficulties in finding judges and prosecutors, and inadequate funding. As of April 1998, however, 74 suspects are known to be currently under indictment for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity. Fifty-six of the suspects are Serbs, 15 are Croats, and 3 are Muslims. 26 of the 74 suspects are in custody at present. One suspect was killed while resisting arrest, a second released pending trial. The first war crimes trial began on May 7, 1996. The suspect, Dusan Tadic, was found guilty on May 7, 1997. A second suspect pleaded guilty and was sentenced in November 1996. There are currently four trials underway. U.S. policymakers are faced with the issue of how to combine support for the Tribunal with progress on implementing the Bosnian peace accords. Some observers believe that vigorous pursuit of war criminals may hurt the peace process. They feared that the Bosnian Serbs could stop implementing the peace accord or engage in acts of violence against peacekeepers. This concern appears to be one reason why IFOR and, for at least the first six months of its tenure, SFOR, appeared reluctant to seize war crimes suspects. However, more recently, a consensus appears to have emerged in the international community that the fact that war criminals remained at large undermined the implementation of critical civilian aspects of the peace agreement. In the longer term, some observers believe that a lasting peace is impossible in Bosnia unless justice is done with respect to war crimes. They believe that the recrimination can only give way to reconciliation if the desire to assign collective guilt to another ethnic group and exact revenge is replaced by the desire to bring to justice the individuals of all ethnic groups who committed the crimes.