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UN war tribunals making progress but still face challenges, officials tell Security Council

Judge Theodor Meron.
UN Photo/Sophia Paris
Judge Theodor Meron.

UN war tribunals making progress but still face challenges, officials tell Security Council

The United Nations war crimes tribunals set up in the wake of the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s and the 1994 genocide in Rwanda are making progress in completing their work, but still face a myriad of challenges that will require support from the international community, their officials told the Security Council today.

The President of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), Theodor Meron, said that while the tribunal is making “excellent progress,” there have been some delays in various cases. “The tribunal continues to face a myriad of challenges in meeting the estimated completion dates for some of its cases,” he said.

The ICTY is tasked by the Council with trying those responsible for the worst war crimes and other breaches of international humanitarian law committed during the various conflicts in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Since its inception 19 years ago, the tribunal has indicted 161 persons.

“The tribunal is situated far from where the crimes took place in the former Yugoslavia. The geographical scope of the indictment and the number of charges alleged can surpass the most complex of national proceedings and the number of crime sites, and crimes alleged, are often of unparalleled scale,” Mr. Meron said, adding that other challenges include departure of staff, witnesses refusing to testify and States being slow in cooperating with requests.

However, he stressed that in spite of delays, the tribunal’s main work beginning next year will focus on appeals and should be mostly finished by 31 December 2014. Addressing everything from crimes of sexual violence to international criminal procedures, the tribunal has “transformed the face of international justice forever, all the while paying full respect to the rights of the accused and the principle of legality,” Mr. Meron said.

“The tribunal has been instrumental in bringing a new era of accountability and a new commitment to justice within the international community at large.”

In his capacity as President of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals (IRMCT), Mr. Meron said the Arusha-based Mechanism, which was established in July this year, is fully functioning and that preparations are underway for the launch of its branch in The Hague.

The Council set up the Mechanism in December 2010 and mandated it to take over and finish the remaining tasks of the ICTR and the ICTY once their mandates expire. The Council has urged the two tribunals to conclude their work by the end of 2014.

The ICTR branch of the Residual Mechanism began its functions on 1 July, while the branch for the ICTY will start on 1 July 2013.

“I urge Council members to reflect on the achievements of the ICTY and the potential of the Mechanism – to build up on the achievements of its predecessors by creating a model institution that represents the international community’s strong commitment in its fight against impunity.”

ICTR President Vagn Joensen said the transition from the ICTR to the Arusha branch of the Mechanism has been effective and has allowed the tribunal to increasingly focus on downsizing its activities and prepare for closure. Over the next months, the main challenge for the ICTR would be the continued transition of the remaining functions to the Mechanism, he said.

Based in the northern Tanzanian town of Arusha, the ICTR was set up after the Rwandan genocide, when at least 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were killed during three months of bloodletting that followed the deaths of then Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira when their plane was brought down over the Rwandan capital, Kigali, on 6 April 1994.

Mr. Joensen added that he expected all the appeals to be completed by the ICTR no later than 31 December 2014.