“Bringing war criminals to justice – and justice to victims”: The message on the wall is clear when the Defence team members enter their workplace – a mere three offices as big as the court’s cafeteria – via the main lobby of the UN Yugoslavia Tribunal (ICTY).
The Oxford Global Justice Internship Programme allowed me to spend three months at the ICTY in The Hague working in the Defence team of General Ratko Mladic. General Mladic was one of the last ICTY indictees to be arrested in 2011, many years after the war in Bosnia in which he played a key role as the Commander of the Bosnian Serb Army (VRS).
The indictment includes the most heinous crimes of international criminal law: genocide, crimes against humanity in the form of ethnic cleansing and violations of the laws and customs of war. Despite, or rather because of, the grave nature of these accusations it is of the utmost importance that General Mladic get a fair trial. My work in the Defence team consisted of preparing witnesses for testimony, conducting legal research and assisting the Counsels in their daily work before the court. Several times per week I sat in court and assisted the Defence lawyers. Over the years, the judges have been presented vast amounts of documents, hundreds of Prosecution witnesses, and they are well aware of the extensive media coverage in the states that were directly involved in the wars via NATO; I cannot even begin to understand how hard it must be for judges to remain impartial. But it is important to understand that, yes, the ICTY is bringing some war criminals to justice; yes, it is bringing justice to many victims after years of impunity for the perpetrators; and, yes, it is making a significant contribution to the future development of the region – one of the lessons from my own home country, Germany, is that trials are important for reconciliation. We shall not assume, however, that every accused before the ICTY is actually guilty. Moreover, even those guilty are not necessarily guilty of all the crimes they are accused of. International Criminal Defence is not only there to uphold a rule of law façade in trials the judgments of which are written long before the trial even started, but it is just as important as the Prosecution.
This insight is the first thing I will always remember. The second memory is how I met General Mladic, shook his hand, and talked to him and how genuinely interested he was in how a young European citizen like me sees current international relations. This internship has helped me understand what international justice is about and why we need international trials. A conviction is worthless if the accused’s rights have not been protected.