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Address of the Prosecutor at the Inauguration of the War Crimes Chamber of the Court of BH

(Exclusively for the use of the media. Not an official document)
The Hague, 9 March 2005

Address of the Prosecutor at the Inauguration of the War Crimes Chamber of the Court of BH

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzégovina
9 March 2005

Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen, dear colleagues,

Many of the right words were uttered today in regard to the inauguration of the War Crimes Chamber of the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I would like to be brief and wholeheartedly join the previous speakers in welcoming this important event. I wish our partners – Judges and Prosecutors of the Court and its War Crimes Chamber – full success and a lot of courage, both professional and moral. I appeal to the International Community to continuously and generously support this effort, as the majority of most terrible crimes in the 1990’s were committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, finally, has received a legal forum at the state level to deal with war crimes, including the cases to be referred from the ICTY. Together with special Courts for war crimes in Croatia and Serbia, and subject to effective regional co-operation, the Sarajevo-based War Crimes Chamber is bound to join the legal battle against impunity. My Office has for a long time supported domestic war crimes prosecutions and promoted direct co-operation between relevant states. With the resources available to me we will continue to assist this process.

The importance of the Sarajevo War Crime Chamber is clear to all of us. Allow me to stress only a couple of issues, which, in my view, will be at the core of domestic war crimes prosecutions. First, they must be victims oriented/ victims-driven and not to be seen as a process for the sake of the process, justice for the sake of justice. Secondly, they must be credible and seen as a-political/ de-politicised proceedings – which is of tremendous importance for the witnesses. And thirdly, they will have to fight against deeply embedded prejudices, public misconceptions, unsettled grievances and probably political interference. Clearly, there will be numerous challenges and obstacles in the way, however, you will have the luxury of no dead-lines to complete the task.

We always say that there were thousands of perpetrators of war crimes and the Tribunal was not designed to deal with all of them. Concurrent jurisdiction of the ICTY and national courts unfortunately did not work as expected and a lot of time was wasted, much of the evidence lost with the witnesses passing away and becoming increasingly reluctant to testify. However, the legacy of the ICTY and its jurisprudence will be of great assistance to you.

All of us working on the war crimes are under the scrutiny of the thousands of victims on different sides. Thus, we must always keep in mind Martin Luther King’s words: "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere". Those of you, working for the War Crimes Chamber in Sarajevo, will be monitored not only by the International Community, but even more so by your three peoples, two entities, your neighbours. The Court of BH must become a truly national court, which will mean a big step forward towards reconciliation. Enormous effort and crystal clear fairness are needed to destroy suspicion, prejudice, lack of confidence. It is a great challenge, not a privilege. And in many ways your task will be more difficult, as you don’t have the powers of the International Tribunal, however, your power and authority is even greater – as this is your country.

Since the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals this is the first time that the authority to prosecute war criminals is being transferred to a national jurisdiction. It would be wrong to think that success is guaranteed. We all will have to see how the practice and experience of the ICTY are to be translated into trials on the national level. Recently held hearings in the ICTY in regard to the transfer of cases to the national courts revealed many problems. There remain issues due to the different legal systems, issues related to command responsibility and retroactivity. We often hear unfair and unnecessary attempts used to commonly distinguish "defenders" and "aggressors", us and them. My message is – there shall be no credit given to a "defender" if he killed or ordered killing of innocent civilians, all are equal in front of the court of law. The criteria of success should be the same and simple – victims must be satisfied as much as possible, as they were hundreds of thousands, and their suffering must be addressed in the first place.

The debate on war crimes in the former Yugoslavia is not subsiding. It is present in the daily life and media, and always politicised. This is the environment you will have to work in: the public is only interested about those suspected or accused, or in politically, not judicially, defined truth. I am much more concerned about the victims of war crimes and their families, and I appeal to you to make the victim aspect of any legal process a priority.

Finally, the main point –national courts are to continue our work, impunity should not be tolerated and this is our moral and professional obligation as lawyers. Rephrasing the words of famous Russian writer A. Solzhenitsyn, known for his personal ordeal through the horrible injustice of Stalin’s regime, we can all agree with him that without punishment of those who committed crimes we are taking away the foundations of justice from beneath new generations For the sake of the future generations in this country I wish the War Crimes Chamber and the Court of BH full success in bringing criminals to justice. Thank you.