THE HAGUE, Netherlands (AP) — Greeted with skepticism at its inception in 1993, the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal is today being hailed as a trailblazer that will help end impunity among the world's ruling classes long after it closes in three years.
At a seminar Tuesday assessing the legacy of the court, legal experts said the precedents set during dozens of trials will live on in jurisprudence, mainly through the International Criminal Court, the first permanent war crimes tribunal.
Critically, the tribunal effectively scrapped the notion of immunity for heads of state when it first indicted Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in 1999. Since that landmark indictment, international courts have filed charges against Sudan's Omar al-Bashir, Liberian President Charles Taylor, Libya's Moammar Gadhafi and senior ministers of the Kenyan government.
The court formally known as the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, or ICTY, also laid down key case law on rape as a war crime or crime against humanity.
Alison Cole, of the Open Society Justice Initiative, said the Yugoslav court "led the way in forging a new path to justice" by laying down crucial case law in the evolving field of international criminal law.
The tribunal was established by the U.N. Security Council 17 years ago with war still raging in the Balkans. It was the first international war crimes court since the Nuremberg and Tokyo prosecutions after World War II, and observers doubted it would be able to bring justice to victims of the brutal conflicts ravaging the former Yugoslavia.
It started slowly, trying low-level officers, and it appeared unlikely that authorities in the region would ever arrest top suspects. By now, the tribunal has taken into custody all 161 suspects it indicted, including political and military leaders such as Milosevic, Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and his military chief Gen. Ratko Mladic.
"Perhaps one of the most remarkable achievements of the ICTY is the fact that every single arrest warrant ... was eventually executed," said U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay.
The tribunal "demonstrated beyond question that an international criminal tribunal for the most serious crimes can work," said Richard Dicker, director of Human Rights Watch's international justice program.
But meting out justice has not been easy for the court, which has been criticized for the slow pace of its trials and its high budget. Serbs have repeatedly accused prosecutors of bias because the majority of those indicted have been Serbs.
In the most significant setback for the tribunal and victims of the Balkan wars, Milosevic died of a heart attack in his cell in 2006 before his four-year genocide trial could reach a verdict.
But now another of the alleged architects of Serb atrocities, Karadzic, is on trial and preparations are under way for Mladic's trial, which is expected to start next year.
With the arrest this year of Mladic and former Croatian Serb rebel leader Goran Hadzic, the tribunal finally took custody of its last two fugitives. Mladic, 69, had been on the run for 16 years and he was arrested by Serb authorities with his health apparently failing.
Even so, the fact that all its suspects were arrested "shows the potential and actual effectiveness of these international courts," which have no police force of their own and must rely on states and international organizations, said Dicker.
Stephen Rapp, the U.S. ambassador at large for war crimes issues, said the arrest of the likes of Karadzic and Mladic underscores that indicted suspects like Sudan's president, who is wanted for genocide in Darfur, now face the prospect of winding up in an international courtroom.
"It sends an enormous signal around the world as we look at similar crimes committed in other places that individuals who commit these crimes won't escape," Rapp said.