As Theodor Meron nears the end of his term as president of the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals, he told BIRN that the UN war crimes court “fundamentally changed how we think about accountability” for the gravest crimes.
Theodor Meron told BIRN in an interview as he comes to the end of his term in office in The Hague that he is “tremendously proud” of the accomplishments of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and its successor, the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals – particularly for their contributions to international criminal and humanitarian law.
“In my view, what the Tribunal has achieved over the years has been nothing short of extraordinary,” Meron said in written answers to BIRN’s questions.
He argued that the ICTY’s achievements were even more significant than the trials it has held and the war criminals it has brought to justice.
“In the span of just a few years, it has fundamentally changed how we think about accountability and the importance of ensuring that those who are alleged to have committed some of the worst crimes imaginable are held to account before fair and impartial courts,” he said.
“At the same time, the ICTY has rigorously and methodically reviewed, explained, and applied key provisions of international law, increasing understanding of the law and, I hope, its application in conflict zones around the world and in national courts, including in the countries of the former Yugoslavia,” he added.
Some of the ICTY’s rulings – the acquittals of Yugoslav Army general Momcilo Perisic and Croatian Army generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac – have caused uproar in the Balkans. Meron admitted that “it has not always been an easy road”, and that the court has faced criticism over controversial verdicts.
“However, I am certain that the judgments rendered by the ICTY, as well as those rendered by the Mechanism, and the ICTY’s sister court, the ICTR [International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda], will stand the test of time, and I am confident that, a century from now, the global community will look back favourably on the judgments rendered by these pioneering institutions and recognise the invaluable contribution these judgments have made to ushering in an era of accountability and respect for the rule of law,” he argued.
The UN court has also been criticised for not doing enough to aid reconciliation. But Meron said it was important to remember the limits to its mandate, pointing out that “the judgments of a court alone cannot heal the deep wounds inflicted by crimes such as those at Srebrenica, for example”.
“Instead, it often falls to members of the communities most impacted by a crime – to civic and religious leaders, to parents and teachers, and to individuals – to find the strength and the means to rebuild their communities,” he said.
‘Those responsible will bear this stigma’
|Milestone verdict: Bosnian Serb general Radislav Krstic at the Hague Tribunal in 2004. Photo: EPA/PAUL VREEKER.|
Meron said that during his 17-year career as an international judge, two decisions were milestones – the verdict convicting Bosnian Serb general Radislav Krstic and the judgment in the trial of Bosnian Serb soldiers Dragoljub Kunarac, Zoran Vukovic and Radomir Kovac, who were convicted of rape.
The 2004 appeals chamber verdict in the Krstic case, presided over by Meron, defined the Srebrenica massacres as an act of genocide.
“Those responsible will bear this stigma, and it will serve as a warning to those who may in future contemplate the commission of such a heinous act,” the ruling said.
Finding Kunarac, Vukovic and Kovac guilty, the ICTY determined that “rape is a crime under customary international law, clarified that there is no victim ‘resistance’ requirement under the customary international law definition of rape, and held that the crimes of enslavement and torture could be based on underlying acts of sexual violence”, Meron explained.
“Through their jurisprudence, the ICTY and the ICTR have thus made clear that crimes of sexual nature are not just an opportunistic side-effect of war – nor are they somehow crimes of a lesser degree than other horrific acts of violence that occur during an armed conflict. Rather, acts of sexual violence can be, and frequently are, an instrument of war,” he added.
Meron’s final year at the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals has been marred by some controversy.
In September, Hague judge Jean-Claude Antonetti accepted Ratko Mladic’s defence’s request to remove Meron, Carmel Agius and Daqun Liu from the appeals process in the trial of the former Bosnian Serb military chief.
Antonetti wrote in his decision that Meron, Agius and Liu “appear biased” because they had previously rendered certain conclusions linked to Mladic in other cases in The Hague.
Meron then removed himself from Radovan Karadzic’s appeal against his genocide and war crimes convictions after the former Bosnian Serb political leader’s defence also accused him of bias.
He has been outspoken during his last months in office; on a recent visit to Belgrade, he chided Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic for denying that the Srebrenica massacres were an act of genocide.
“It does not help the government of Serbia to challenge judgments of a major international criminal tribunal,” Meron told Brnabic.
Born in 1930 in Poland, Meron’s early years were marked by the devastation of World War II – an experience that he says has shaped his entire career since then.
“Although my career has followed a circuitous path, the constant theme has been an attempt to grapple with the chaos and pain of war. War shattered my childhood and gave me a craving for education and the desire to use the law to bring an end to atrocities,” he explained.
“I am deeply grateful for the opportunities I have had throughout my life, and particularly for the fact that I had the extraordinary opportunity to take the helm of institutions that have served as pioneers of this new era of accountability,” he added.