In Their Own Words: Balkan Youth on the Legacy of the ICTY

In late March, two long-awaited verdicts on war crimes charges were handed down in the Hague. First, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadžić was found guilty of one count of genocide in Srebrenica. A week later, Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Šešelj was acquitted.

I decided to ask young people from across the Balkans for their opinions about the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), and what its newly written additions to the official history of the region might mean for them. The response was swift and immense. Within hours of publishing a call for participants on social media, I’d received 20 emails. Clearly there was a desire among young people to contribute to a public discussion they’d felt largely excluded from. “I’m very glad someone’s connecting the dots and involving young people in the whole ICTY media narrative, since we are the ones to bare the potential consequences of ICTY decisions,” one university student wrote.

Everyone who responded to the call received the same prompt: “The Hague Tribunal is wrapping up its work. What was the worst thing and what was the best thing about the Hague Tribunal? How do you think its legacy will affect your future?”

Answers have been lightly edited for clarity.


“The worst aspect of the Hague Tribunal was its necessity. The almost certain impunity that would have resulted had the process been left to politically-leveraged local arbitration just speaks to the prevalence of ‘politically-dependent truth’, at least among my fellow Bosnian Serbs. In the place of local messiness, we got more fuel to the ‘anti-Serb conspiracy’ of Milošević’s playbook, an electoral tactic that’s still more effective than raising pensions.

The best part of the Court’s work is the amalgamation of evidence and testimony, which can form the knowledge base for conversations among people interested in the truth, should there be any of us left in the country willing to have that conversation.

Looking forward, the legacy of the Court will be to rightly place Srebrenica-denial on a par with Holocaust-denial, as well as to mark any of us pointing that out as agents of a foreign court.”

— Petar Pajević, 23, philosophy graduate in Banja Luka


“The best thing about the work of the ICTY is probably that it recorded everything that happened during the 1990s wars all over the former Yugoslavia. When I say that I think it is really important that everything both good and bad from history is written and saved for the future, to be read about and learned from, it is to fulfill that saying: ‘Historia magistra vitae est’ (history is life’s teacher), so that all those atrocities committed during the 1990s wars never happen again.

Of course, that might be a naive point of view or a naive hope, because dark and bad parts of history seem to repeat themselves (especially in the Balkans), so what is necessary is a strong and clear condemnation of atrocities communicated in such a way that even a person who doesn’t know law can understand and draw conclusions based on facts rather than on a subjective, ethnic point of view. So that is maybe the worst thing about the work of the ICTY: Its inability to preserve its verdicts from media and public subjective targeting in which you have, let’s say for example, a Serbian officer convicted for war crimes and when that sentence is publicized, you have loud calls from Serbian media and the Serbian public that the Hague is a political tribunal whose only purpose is to punish Serbs. You can find various examples of that sort of reaction to the ICTY’s verdicts depending on the nationality and ethnicity of the convicted person.

Unfortunately, when I think of the legacy of the ICTY and my future as a someone who lives in a country deeply affected by war and its aftermath, I think that the main objective, the main goal of the ICTY, has not been achieved. And that goal is justice and a clear, unpolitical justice that can serve to bring reconciliation and coexistence again to Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Balkans. Once again the world (through the work of the ICTY this time) has failed the Balkans. And again the world has left the people of the Balkans to fend for themselves. And that trip on the long and curvy road to reconciliation and coexistence is again upon our shoulders alone.”

Fuad Avdagić, 24, law student at the Sarajevo Faculty of Law


“History has taught us that it has no mercy on those who are on the wrong side of it. Every conflict in itself is an unfortunate set of circumstances which involves atrocities on both sides. This is why the breakup of Yugoslavia is no different, since it showed how easy it was for people to turn against their neighbors and brothers, destroying a utopian idea of unity among different ethnic and religious groups.

When the ICTY was formed, it was supposed to bring justice. But we need to ask ourselves if objective justice is possible when there are so many different arguments about who is to blame for such a conflict. Taking into consideration that 80 percent of all sentences were given to Serbs, it is hard to believe that it is unbiased. It is morally wrong to criminalize one part of the conflict while pardoning another when it is clear that there were wrongdoings on both sides. This is exactly why mutual understanding will hardly ever be achieved in the region, and why in my opinion the court lost its credibility. I do not believe that its decisions will affect the generations to come, because I believe that those generations will never turn to that unfortunate past, but will rather want to build a better future for themselves. It will, however, influence the current generations, especially Serbian, who will face labeling wherever they go in the world.

The ICTY will soon end its mission, and that will be a good thing for the region and its stability, as there will be one less thing we will continue to argue about. When it comes to history, it will go down as a political court, a court that was built to make artificial decisions in order to externally solve a complex conflict, which they themselves did not completely understand.

Is it good to be on the right side of history? Only if that history is not altered, biased and is mutually accepted. I do not want to live in a world where people know where Serbia is only because of what they heard about the War.”

— Sergej Dojcinović, 18, university student in the UK


“The Hague Tribunal has brought to justice the largest number of senior-positioned individuals, who otherwise would not have been processed. However, survivors will never be fully satisfied with the Tribunal’s judgements because of certain acquittals and the practice of releasing criminals after serving two-thirds of their sentence. In my opinion, the serious shortcoming of the Hague Tribunal is the lack of judgement for genocide, except in the case of Srebrenica. The question is why, at least in the case of Prijedor, the deciding factor for proving genocide was the number of victims and not the intention (mens rea).

The Hague Tribunal will not have a direct impact on my generation. Its legacy will affect future generations because the indisputable verdicts recorded in history books will teach that no crime goes unpunished and that national heroes cannot be those who have committed war crimes and genocide.”

Sanita Bilanović, 18, the Association of Victims and Witnesses of Genocide


“In my opinion, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia was created with the right motives (to punish war criminals and serve justice) but failed to serve its purpose. During its work over the past two decades, the Hague Tribunal was inconsistent, biased and has made some very questionable decisions.

As for the worst thing about the ICTY, I would list the selective justice. Some of the war criminals were rightfully found guilty, while the majority of them were set free. Criminals such as Naser Orić, Ante Gotovina, and Ramuš Haradinaj were acquitted of murder and war crimes charges. Also, it is hard for me to believe that no one was found responsible for the bombing of civilians and innocent people of Serbia in 1999. No charges were filed by the ICTY against Tony Blair, the NATO officers, and many more who committed war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. Because of that, even though there were some right decisions made by the ICTY, I cannot find any satisfaction and solace in anything the ICTY has done over the past two decades.

As the tribunal is wrapping up its work, I would say that it failed to repair the damage that was done in the 1990s. If I had to give a grade to the Hague Tribunal, I would give it 4/10. Instead of bringing  peace to the Balkan region, the ICTY somehow managed to revive the anger of people from the former Yugoslavia. Even though decisions made by the ICTY left a bitter taste in everybody’s mouth, I still think that we cannot let something that happened in the past millennium dictate our future relations. Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia and every other country affected by the 1990s wars should work towards the common goal of putting everything that happened behind us, and focus on repairing the damages that have been done. It will take decades before the region gets back on its feet, and the Hague Tribunal has done very little to help it.”

Vladimir Milošević, 20, university student and basketball player in the US


“Given the context and the purpose of the ICTY, it has achieved its intended purpose: to convict and try those who are guilty. Has it delivered justice? That is perhaps debatable due to the subjective nature of the term, but I do feel it has given some closure to the families of those affected. The lowest points of this tribunal I’d argue were in the late 1990s and early 2000s when both Croatia and Serbia were highly unwilling to cooperate with handing over those who were accused of war crimes. Had EU conditionality not played a role in Croatia’s case, it could have been different. In contrast, the highest points of the tribunal, certainly for Bosniaks, has come with the conviction of Radovan Karadžić for genocide (despite only being charged for Srebrenica). I’d also argue that another high point will come when the verdict is delivered for Ratko Mladić. I think ultimately what is important in this context is not these extremely tedious and drawn out trials and verdicts, but that the World, particularly the West, recognizes the atrocities which occurred during the Bosnian War since they themselves failed to help Bosnia-Herzegovina in a brutal conflict. The ICTY will have a varied legacy in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but hopefully the various members of these ethnic communities can reaffirm the verdicts, and move forward together with a process of reconciliation.”

— Ajdin Dautović, 24, Master of Arts candidate at the Institute of European, Russian and Eurasian Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada


“It is quite difficult to name what was the best or the worst thing about the Hague Tribunal. I would start with the worst thing about ICTY, and I believe that was that the Tribunal somehow aimed to serve ‘justice for all’ parties involved in the Yugoslavia wars, regardless of who was responsible for initiating them and who the victims were. Since I am a lawyer myself, I have a feeling that the facts were not properly considered, but rather the Tribunal wanted to find guilty individuals from each and every country involved in the war. The fact that Karadžić got 40 years for leading an army to commit genocide, and that Šešelj wasn’t found guilty at all – despite being one of the individuals from that time who continuously spread hate, explains a lot about the Tribunal. In a way, the Tribunal only confirmed the ‘heroes’ of the ultra-nationalist groups, and indirectly legitimated their xenophobic agendas.

However, the Tribunal’s work also had many positive aspects. I consider the establishment of the ICTY as a very positive step, since above everything, it still served a little justice, and some war criminals were charged. If trials for war crimes would have been left to the countries involved in the Yugoslav wars, the outcome would be even worse, since the Balkans still suffer from nationalism, and I don’t believe that any Court would find someone guilty for war crimes who they had considered a hero just a few years before.

To be honest, I don’t believe that the legacy of the tribunal will affect my future in any way, since, as I explained above, I don’t think that the ICTY did a good job after all. Most of the individuals who were part of the proceedings at the ICTY are undisputed heroes in their home countries, and hated in the other ones. The ICTY failed to reduce ultra-nationalism in Balkans, and to the contrary, only fueled it more. I still remember the reactions of my Serbian friends when Haradinaj et. al. were found not guilty at the tribunal, and I also see the reactions of Bosnians, Kosovo Albanians and Croats to the verdicts for Karadžić and Šešelj. In the end, nothing has changed at all.

People from Balkans need to become closer with each other, and there’s still been no formula found to achieve this. The positive thing is that the young generations are much more open-minded and willing to change, but unfortunately the politicians we have in the Balkans keep saying one thing and doing something completely different.”

Artan Murati, 26, lawyer in Kosovo


“The ICTY has undoubtedly achieved a lot of success throughout its existence. The process of archiving, analyzing and deconstructing millions of pages worth of evidence is now forever sanctioned within the corridors of international justice. It will prove useful in setting legal precedents in future cases of war crimes. Yet, despite its obvious successes – those of prosecuting men and women for the most heinous of crimes committed by humanity – it has failed to provide an accurate representation of the horrors suffered by all victims. Indeed, an understanding that the Tribunal has disproportionately prosecuted Serbs for the crimes committed in the 1990s is critical to allow true reconciliation to be foreseeable in the future. I am optimistic that through a process of critique and praise of the Tribunal’s work, young people will be compelled to fully recognize the atrocities committed by all sides. Indeed, in an increasingly globalized and connected world, people are evermore understanding of each other’s history, irrespective of a national identity and associated guilt.”

Jelena Djurić, 21, recent university graduate


“When the ICTY started its work, we in Kosovo were euphoric about the ICTY and the  conclusions we expected it to come to through its trials and verdicts, as we believe that the last war ( 1998-1999 ) fought against the Serbian police forces still isn’t studied or discussed enough and remains an unclosed case. This court was said to be the key institution that would spread justice for those who committed war crimes against civilians of all ethnicities in the Balkans.  

The fact that in the Balkans there were several wars — in the countries of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo — tells us that there are a lot of people who are guilty and that they need to be put on trial. The idea that the ICTY, an international court, would take charge in judging the suspects, brought hope to the people of the Balkans. However, we were wrong about one thing, and that was we didn’t know that serious international organizations such as the ICTY could ignore the truth or the untold truth. Everyone here remembers when NATO was discussing the intervention in Kosovo in 1999 that Vojislav Šešelj said: “If NATO decides to bomb us, if America decides to go on with this aggression, Serbs will suffer, but there will be no Albanians in Kosovo anymore.” Now just imagine that this man, at the end of March, was found not guilty in the Hague Tribunal. However, there are also encouraging things; for example, that the government he was a part of lost power on 5 October, 2000, that in later elections his party only won a few parliamentary seats, and that when he was released from the Hague on 15 November, 2014, not too many people showed up to greet him.

As a young liberal, I hope that the people who belong to that dark past won’t re-emerge ‘not guilty’ in the future and try to radicalize the region’s young people, who are strongly oriented towards the EU and its unboundaried politics, which find far more reasons to connect than to divide us. Hopefully the ICTY will push the post-war process forward, and for the first time in our modern history, the Balkans won’t be seen as a troubled region but rather as a successful one.”

— Art Berisha, 19, history student at the University of Pristina and student council representative


”It is hard to find even one good thing in the work of the ICTY. From the start it was seen as foreign, and recognized as an illegitimate instrument in charge of resolving regional matters. That is why it has failed to contribute even to the slightest regional understanding among former belligerents.

However, we need to take into consideration the fact that former political leadership of the Balkans is to be blamed for the formation of the ICTY in the first place. Namely, war-time leaders of the ex-Yugoslav republics did not listen to the requests of the international community aimed at bringing to justice alleged perpetrators of war crimes. That is why the ICTY was formed by the UN in the first place, and that should be the main message for the future. Regional politicians need to be aware that if they fail to take initiative at the local level, the international community will react and they probably will not like its decision (as was the case with the establishment of the ICTY). Regional matters need to be resolved by regional actors, using regional institutions. Only in that case would decisions made by an ad hoc Tribunal be accepted as legitimate by the general population.”

— Gavrilo Nikolić, 24, university student in Belgium


“I think that the Hague Tribunal – in relation to the ICTY – had good intentions, and definitely had some great successes when it came to delivering justice. It so far indicted 161 accused perpetrators (e.g. Radislav Krstić) for crimes against humanity, genocide and/or rape; and over 4,000 witnesses have come forward to bring justice to light as of 2011. These successes have helped victims of the Croatian War (1991-1995), Bosnian War (1992-1995), Kosovo (1998-1999) and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (2001) to come to terms with what happened during those dark times. For many, The Hague is a symbol of hope, justice and new beginnings. However, it has its shortcomings. Recently, the ICTY acquitted Vojislav Šešelj and sentenced Radovan Karadižić to 40 years. Šešelj’s acquittal, to me, is a victory for those who advocate ‘ethnic cleansing’ and genocide. This is clearly not an act of justice on the part of The Hague and for the victims who suffered as a result of his actions. Not only this, his acquittal poses a danger to society as he is an ultra-nationalist and the figurehead of the current Radical Party of Serbia – ideologies have more of an impact than the actions of an individual or group of individuals. Other shortcomings include the long legal processes to bring perpetrators to court, which has, in more than one case, denied justice to some victims as the perpetrators either passed away before a hearing or are currently too sick to be summoned to court for proceedings.

Despite this, I think that the ICTY itself has brought peace to those who suffered and is itself a legacy of international action. I think that its affect on my future will be largely positive. Upon closing, The Hague will bring forth debate on the Yugoslav War not just among academics but also the public; it will stand to resemble the role the international community plays in world affairs; and, it will send a strong message to those who commit or plan to commit atrocities – The Hague is definitely an example of a legal deterrent. To my future directly, its legacy will help bring peace to me as a victim of the Bosnian War and will help me think about my place in the world and my identity post-Bosnian War. I think that, above all, The Hague gives, and will continue to give, a voice to the voiceless.”

— Mirela Kadrić, 22, historian


“Since its inception, the ICTY was doomed to fail. The expectations built around it have been shaped by at least three different narratives about war crimes having to do with former Yugoslavia.

In the eyes of one ethnic group, an alleged war criminal awaiting trial is seen as a ‘butcher’, while he is simultaneously seen in the eyes of another as a ‘mythical hero’. Convicting a ‘butcher’ would represent justice, but convicting a ‘hero’ is of course, a first-class act of injustice. For individuals who follow nationalist sentiments and the general rhetoric of politicians from their respective ethnic groups, I do not think there is any court in the world that could bring universal justice or reconciliation to the Balkans, as one group would always remain unhappy.

However, one of the greatest achievements of the ICTY was that it brought highly-ranked state and military officials such as Karadžić and Mladić to some form of justice. An act like this would certainly be impossible in the context of the post-war judicial system of Bosnia and Herzegovina that is incapable of dealing with the crimes of post-war political elites. The authority of an international court such as the ICTY was the only source of potential justice for the families and communities affected by such war criminals. On the other hand, the ICTY will also be remembered as a ‘politicized’ court that was not able to bring reconciliation and justice to the Balkans, and always seemed to be working to create some sort of balance between the different ethnic groups. The legacy of the ICTY is not of love, peace, and justice in the region, but rather a foreshadowing of a new stage of nationalism and hatred that involves the second wave generation of nationalist youth who don’t remember the war, but still hate ‘the others’. This generation of young people, the ‘Zero Generation’, will soon become pillars of the society we operate in. The question arises if they will repeat the same mistakes committed by the former generation who are now in The Hague, or if they will be brave enough to pursue a much-needed revolution in the politics, culture, and mentality of the Balkans.”

Samir Beharić, 24, journalism student and international projects coordinator in Youth Center – Jajce


Cover photo credit: Craig Moe/flickr/some rights reserved

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Lily Lynch

Lily is co-founder and editor-in-chief of Balkanist Magazine. She lives in Belgrade, Serbia.