The Search for Balkan War Criminals – Justice, Peace and Reconciliation

March 10, 2016
Frontline Club Balkan War criminals event

L-r: Philippe Sands, Julian Borger, Adam LeBor, Milan Dinić & Kemal Pervanic. Photo by Tolly Robinson.

On Wednesday 9 March, the Guardian‘s world affairs editor Julian Borger was joined by a panel of experts to discuss the search for Balkan war criminals as detailed in his new book, The Butcher’s Trail – How the Search for Balkan War Criminals Became the World’s Most Successful Manhunt. 

The Butcher’s Trail is a factual account of the pursuit and capture of former Yugoslav war criminals under the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) which, according to chair Adam LeBor, an author and journalist, “reads like a thriller.”

Borger said that he wrote the book because “it struck me that this [capturing the criminals and bringing them to justice] was finally an extraordinary achievement and there was lots that hadn’t been told.”

However, he admitted that when it came to researching the book he found it difficult to encourage people to comment: “I got used to a great amount of rejection.”

Milan Dinić, a Serbian journalist who has worked in the region for a decade and assisted Borger in producing the book, said it offered “a very good revelation of what actually happened, in the sense that it provides an insight about the people.”

Philippe Sands, a lawyer at Matrix chambers and a Professor of International Law at UCL, praised Borger’s “fascinating book” and said it raised interesting questions about the reasoning behind the creation of a dedicated war crimes tribunal.

Sands asked: “What was the point of creating a Yugoslav war crimes tribunal? Was it a place to tell stories, was it a place to write history books, was it a place to do justice, was it something different? Was it all of the above?”

He told the audience the tribunal was: “A creature of a political settlement that was part of a response to a feeling of guilt and inadequacy… and as part of the mechanism for delivering a political solution.”

Kemal Pervanic, a survivor of the Omarska concentration camp, spoke about the impact of the tribunal for him personally: “The tribunal, in a way, has enabled me to go back… my work [as a human rights activist, peace builder and filmmaker] is possible because of the tribunal.”

However, Pervanic added that today Bosnia is “not doing well.”

He put this down to the fact that: “The international community has instigated a system that keeps criminals in power in perpetuity.”

Dinić furthered this in saying that the war itself had four sides, with the fourth being the “international community, which played a high role.”

LeBor asked the panellists to expand on the “role of individuals” in bringing the war criminals to trial.

Borger said: “The role of individuals was key… They acted as mavericks, all of them.”

Sands took the opportunity to makes links with current events and injustices. Speaking about the process of bringing about justice, and the two-pronged strategy of prevention and the prosecution of perpetrators, he said: “Why is this not happening in relation to what’s going on in Syria?”

He warned that justice was a long process: “Memories are very long, and the idea that in just 20 years you can bring to an end the kind of conditions that have given rise to the horrors we know about, I think is an illusion. Justice is a sticking plaster.”

Sands went on to say: “What Julian has done is explain to us the mechanics of delivering a justice system. The question that we now have to ask ourselves is what was the point of it all?”

Bringing the discussion to an end, Pervanic reflected on his personal experience and his hope for justice in Bosnia: “For a lot of people justice means so many different things, because for most of them it’s a very personal thing. We need to rise above personal feelings to see this.”