Judge Theodor Meron reflects on his quest for international justice

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By Euronews
Judge Theodor Meron reflects on his quest for international justice

Judge Theodor Meron has presided over the International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia for the past five years. A court which has managed to indict 161 war crime suspects but which has also had its share of criticism.

"We in international criminal tribunals cannot have any political agenda. We cannot ask what kind of judgment will please people.

It’s also the first international criminal court since Nuremberg. Euronews talks to a man whose life mission has been to make international justice, just.

Valerie Zabriskie euronews: “You were nine years old when Nazi Germany invaded your country of origin Poland. You survived the ghettos, a forced labour camp, you lost loved ones just because they were Jewish. Instead of seeking revenge or being angry, you had a craving for something else.”

Theodor Meron, Outgoing President, ICTY : “The war really deprived me of a normal childhood. It deprived me of school. It deprived me of friends, of playing with friends, of so many of my dear ones including my mother. And it brought about chaos and violence and really facing up to tremendous atrocities and brutalities. It left a certain message after that, and I prefer usually not to dwell too much on that part of my life, it’s very painful. It was to try and find a profession in which I could make perhaps a small contribution to preventing in the future atrocities and the kind of childhood that I had for other children. And I found that choosing international law, choosing humanitarian law, choosing human rights, holds at least a small promise in helping to prevent such events and such atrocities in the future.”

Euronews: “Seventy years ago, there was the first international criminal tribunal, Nuremberg. Did Nuremberg help Germany come to terms with its past?”

Theodor Meron: “Nuremberg helped not only Germany. Nuremberg helped the whole universe of accountability. After the First World War in the Treaty of Versailles, the possibility was raised of an international criminal tribunals. This got absolutely nowhere. So after the Second World War, the international community was not prepared to go the same way and it felt that we need international trials conducted by judges from various countries. And Nuremberg was no way perfect. It was fairly thin on due process, on some notions of fairness of trial. And it was in a way a victors’ court, let’s face it. But nevertheless, it produced some seminal, some fundamental changes without which further progress would not have been possible.”

Euronews: “One of the criticisms of the ICTY is that it has existed for over 22 years, that some trials have taken years. It has become so bloated, whereas Nuremberg was so fast, it took a year. Is it fair to compare them?

Theodor Meron: “I think that there is an answer to it. In Nuremberg, the allies benefited from an incredible paper trail. The Nazis were great archivists. They kept records of everything. In principle, every person who arrived in Auschwitz was registered in some kind of a way. In the former Yugoslavia, maintaining archives and records was not a national pastime. There was very few of that. So you had to produce witnesses, bring them to the Hague from several thousand kilometres away. Witnesses were sometimes difficult to find. Not always, from the very beginning, the governments were entirely cooperative. In contrast to Nuremberg, we did not have a police, a military police which we could send anywhere as the American military police could go in Germany to seize evidence, to subpoena witnesses, to bring them to the court. We were totally dependent on the cooperation of states.”

Euronews: “Radovan Karadzic, five years. We’re still waiting for Mladic’s trial to finish. Milosevic died while his trial was taking place. Why do these trials take so long?”

Theodor Meron: “You have volumes of evidence which are unprecedented in history. You have hundreds of witnesses. You have mega-crimes committed over a long period of time. In the case of Mr. Karadzic for example, allegations pertain to crimes committed in lots of municipalities. Every single one of them has to be correctly addressed. And we are doing our best to speed trials up. We are constantly aware of the fact that one of the due process rights is the right to a speedy trial. Has this been perfect? No. But have we produced justice? Yes.”.

Euronews: “Two years ago you were criticized for a failure of rendering justice when there were two acquittals of two top criminal war suspects: one Croatian, one Serbian. But you still say that international justice was rendered?”

Theodor Meron: “We in international criminal tribunals cannot have any political agenda. We cannot ask what kind of judgment will please people. Acquittals are always controversial and they will be particularly controversial when you speak of an area which is very highly politicized. Where the animosity between ethnic and national groups are still continuing despite all the progress that has been made. So I think that acquittals, from time to time, are the sign of a mature system. Of an objective system. Of a neutral system which does not seek to find somebody guilty but wants to render a just judgment.”

Euronews: “We see 20 years after the Dayton Peace Accords, 22 years after the ICTY first started, there is still a long path towards reconciliation.”

Theodor Meron: “If you reflect on reconciliation in other nations such as Germany, reconciliation is not the function, nor the mission, of international criminal courts alone. You can have a reconciliation when you have leadership of community leaders, of religious leaders, of intellectuals who are prepared to push their people towards reconciliation. We need more Mandelas. And we need the great German leaders who were prepared to confront the past, the cruelty and the unbelievable nature of the Holocaust and draw conclusions. So you had this leadership in Germany and I hope that over time we will see more and more leaders in the former Yugoslavia who will courageously lead their peoples towards a reconciliation.