Using the word ‘success’ to describe or question the effectiveness of special courts and tribunals, is perhaps not the right choice of words, but it certainly has been a question in my mind for the past month particularly.
I recently traveled to the Netherlands for my host organisation, in preparation for our upcoming Hague Symposium on Post-Conflict Transition and International Justice. During this time, after a meeting with our contact at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, he invited me to sit in on a session in court, that was taking place at the time. It was fascinating and a great privilege to be a witness to this first hand.
At the same time, it was of course like a real courtroom scenario with a lot of back and forth nit-picking, dragging on forever about minuscule details and the witness avoiding direct answers. In short, it lacked the dramatic scenes we have gotten used to on TV!
While sitting there, listening to the detailed references being made to specific dates and locations, it struck me how ridiculous some of that seemed, considering that they were talking about events that had taken place more than two decades ago. I tried to think back to what I had been doing on the specific dates in question and unless it happened to fall on a memorable day in my life, I found it impossible to do. And here they were trying to establish the accused’s guilt in heinous war crimes with these testimonies. They did of course have supporting documentation, but overall, a lot of the details came from the witnesses and their statements and answers.
During the past week, ten of the accused have in fact been found guilty, getting sentences of 10 – 25 years as punishment for their crimes. All of these cases are now up for appeal, and will therefore drag the process on even longer.
I am not disputing the importance of retribution and transitional justice! On the contrary, as a South African, I am fully aware and very grateful for the success of the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in our country, post Apartheid. However I am questioning the time lapsed since then and the effectiveness of the process, under these circumstances. Not to mention of course the cost factor, and whether all that money and the resources could not be utilized more successfully.
During conversations with some of the experts involved in these processes, I often only hear about the small ‘successes’, but the very essential lessons learned, and while future Tribunals and Special Courts are able to learn from the mistakes and successes, I cannot help but wonder whether the victims, who are meant to be receiving the retribution, are in fact not suffering even more and for unnecessary extended periods of time. Have we not perhaps lost focus of the actual purpose of these Tribunals? At the expense of the victims, who surely have suffered enough!
The upcoming summer in The Hague, seeing students hashing out some of these questions will certainly be interesting!