By Justice Hub
The Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has upheld the life sentence against Zdravko Tolimir for his involvement – among others – of the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. Zdravko Tolimir (1948) was a commander in the army of Republika Srpska. Justice Hub spoke to Iva Vukusic, analyst and researcher in The Hague.
Q: He’s a big fish right?
Tolimir was a close colleague of Ratko Mladic, who is currently on trial at the ICTY as well. The ICTY’s Office of Prosecutor has conducted one of the biggest criminal investigations in history to try to understand what happened in those days after the fall of the enclave in July 1995. They succeeded and today, we know a lot.
The investigation lasted for years and included searches of an enormous terrain and numerous crime scenes, interviewing hundreds of witnesses now living all over the world, seizing documents in military barracks, finding graves, exhuming and identifying bodies and conducting demographic studies. This investigation can serve as a lesson to other courts and tribunals faced with investigating future massacres on this scale.
Q: How important is Tolimir to the ICTY?
The ICTY recently concluded another Srebrenica case, Popovic et al., in which other leading figures of the Bosnian Serb army were convicted of genocide and other crimes. Tolimir, Popovic, and all the other previous cases represent some of the most important work the ICTY has done over the years, also in terms of bringing this massacre to public attention worldwide (and keeping it there), and providing a space for victims and survivors to speak out publicly about what they went through.
What the ICTY did in these cases is narrow the space of denial. It’s not possible to be in mainstream political life and deny outright that this ever happened. That is already a huge success. Not everyone calls it genocide, but only marginal political figures would deny that it ever happen. That is largely due to the work of the ICTY.
Q: What was his role in the Srebrenica massacre?
Tolimir was among the highest-ranking officers involved in both committing the genocide but also in trying to conceal the evidence. That particular part of his participation is particularly gruesome. He was convicted of genocide and imprisoned for life.
Q: So far, how many people have been found guilty at the ICTY?
79 people have been found guilty. Four trials are still running: Goran Hadžić, Radovan Karadžić, Ratko Mladić and Vojislav Šešelj. 10 are pending before the appeals chamber.
Q: What has been the impact of the Tolimir trial in Serbia?
The media largely covers the proceedings selectively and, for the most part, the population has very little idea about the basics, let alone details, of the cases in question. The law they apply is also difficult to understand, so outreach here plays an important role.
If you would ask people in the streets of Serbia, many won’t probably even know who he is. Also, as I am sure you are aware, this is the Bosnian Serb army, so, I assume there would be more attention and knowledge in the Republika Srpska, the BiH entity.
However, I would say that given the number of convictions for genocide and Srebrenica already, this is just adding up to that. Only the Zepa part of the appeals judgment would be truly innovative, and we will see what will happen there.
The politicians have largely pushed for black and white narratives about the past. If they accept that some crimes took place, they are always quick to explain them by saying they were revenge for something that was done to them previously. Without the political will to address the past, based on facts, serious media attention and support for critical examination of the past and education reform, I doubt anything will change for the better in the long term.
Q: Seven men were arrested by the Serbian authorities in March. Is Serbia ready for justice?
Serbia has been conducting war crimes trials for years. This is not the first one. As elsewhere in the region, they are sometimes flawed, sometimes they collapse on appeal, but they happen. We can discuss who they select for prosecutions and with what charge, but the trials do happen.
However, as we see from developments nationally, as in the case called Dikovic, it’s hardly a smooth process. The state institutions still struggle with high-ranking officials, and there is pressure to not implicate the state in any crimes. The tendency is to arrest and blame low-level perpetrators.
Also, in Serbia, they mostly do not use the word genocide for Srebrenica. It’s still a struggle. It’s very important that the EU watches over these proceedings and the judiciary more broadly in order to monitor Serbia’s readiness to apply the law without political considerations and deal with its past in a way that is based on facts and not nationalist considerations.
Photo: Zdravko Tolimir at the ICTY (Bas Czerwinski/ANP)