The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Karadzic trial

October 26, 2009

Radovan Karadzic, the leader of wartime Bosnian Serbs, was a no show today at the opening of his trial at the International Criminal Tribunal on Yugoslavia. He’s planning to defend himself against eleven counts of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and other atrocities.

The reason for his no-show? One of his legal advisors told the BBC that from the scope of the trial – thought to include 1.2 million pages of evidence, numerous crime scenes and hundreds of witness – it was understandable why Mr Karadzic, who is not a trained lawyer, had stayed away.

I guess mounting a defense against genocide can be time-consuming…..

More broadly, this case illustrates the dilemmas of criminal tribunals and transitional justice. On the one hand, victims generally tend to be supportive at the beginning of such trials and look to such trials for some type of closure. But because of the cumbersome rules of evidence and cryptic rules of procedure, we can expect extensive recesses and other delays in the coming months and years — many of which will resemble today’s circus-like atmosphere where the defendant simply refuses to appear.

The fiasco of the Milosevic trial produced a growing literature critical of international criminal tribunals and skeptical of the utility of these types of prosecutions. Much of that literature evaluates these types of prosecutions through the lens of restorative justice (broadly how the procedures fail to promote reconciliation) or norms production (how these trials often fail to deter future crimes). I think these are all valid critiques. But, if we look purely through the lens of retributive justice (whereby the focus is on the punishment of a particular crime), I think trials against the likes of Milsovic, Karadzic, and the other most notorious war criminals are probably worth the candle.

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Jon Western has spent the last fifteen years teaching IR in liberal arts colleges at Mount Holyoke College and the Five Colleges in western Massachusetts. He has an eclectic range of intellectual interests but often writes on international security, U.S. foreign policy, military intervention, and human rights. He occasionally shares his thoughts about professional life in liberal arts colleges. In his spare time he coaches middle school soccer, mentors the local high school robotics team, skis, and sails.