Op-ed on Balkan Insight

Op-ed written together with Robert Donia and Richard Wilson was published on Balkan Insight today.

The article can be found on the website of Balkan Insight and below.


Safeguarding the Hague Tribunal’s Unique War Archives

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia has amassed an archive of over 10 million documents and other vital evidence which must be preserved as a permanent record of the war years.

Richard A. Wilson, Robert J. Donia, Saskia Baas

Last week, Radovan Karadzic was convicted of war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. This verdict is of tremendous importance for survivors of the war that tore apart the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s and forms a milestone in the international community’s pursuit of global justice.

Bringing this highly complex case to an end is the latest of an impressive list of achievements of the Tribunal, which includes the completion of 147 such cases. As the Tribunal is preparing to close its doors next year, its contribution to international justice will be undeniable.

To safeguard this extraordinary legacy, it is now important to ensure that the Tribunal’s archives are consolidated and made accessible to victim communities and scientists, to enable the establishment of a historical record of the wars that tore apart the former Yugoslavia.

These archives contain official documents from political and military units, personal diaries and note books of the accused, meeting transcripts and witness statements. Further, they hold a large collection of photographs, films, radio recordings and numerous other sources.

Most of these unique materials are currently stored in the repository of the Tribunal’s Office of the Prosecutor. They form the key to understanding the dark pages of the region’s history that left over 100,000 people dead.

With the imminent closure of the Tribunal, it is essential that its guarantors commit to the development of this vast and unique collection of materials into a consolidated and easily accessible archive.

There are three important reasons why this commitment should form a priority in the Tribunal’s completion strategy.

First of all, the repository contains information that could help victims’ relatives find out what happened to their loved ones. While most victims of the wars have been identified and buried, many relatives still search for information on the exact circumstances under which deaths have occurred. They deserve to have access to the Tribunal’s sources that could provide the answers they need to cope with their losses.

That archives can provide such support to survivors is proven by the German Holocaust archive in Bad Arolsen, which performs a similar function for Holocaust survivors. More than 70 years after the end of World War II, the archive still responds to thousands of requests from victim-relatives every year.

Secondly, the materials represent an unrivalled source to historians of the region’s violent past, who attempt to establish the causes of the crimes. Establishing a baseline of historical truth about the violence is essential to learn the lessons of the past and prevent recurrence in the future.

But the scientific value of the materials goes far beyond the particular region where the crimes occurred. Social scientific research on mass violence has increased our understanding of armed conflict and is gives us vital insights into identifying the political, societal, cultural and psychological factors that lead to these atrocious crimes.

Finally, the creation of an accessible archive is a matter of integrity and fulfilling institutional promises.

When the Dayton Agreement put a formal end to the war in November 1995, the Tribunal’s then President Antonio Cassese stated that “justice is an indispensable ingredient of the process of national reconciliation”. Indeed, while the Dayton agreement brought peace in the strictest terms – the end of military confrontation – war-torn societies require a long-term process of reconciliation and healing in order to create peace in a broader and more sustainable sense.

Reconciliation is aided by the type of historical records created through the Tribunal’s proceedings, which prevents denial of the atrocities committed and provides counter-balance to any attempt at political manipulation of history. To live up to its commitment to long-term peace through reconciliation, it only makes sense that the Tribunal makes its records available to support this process.

The records of the Tribunal thus carry major potential value to survivors of the wars, scientists concerned with understanding its causes and to the credibility of the Tribunal itself. In particular, the repository of the Prosecutor’s Office contains a vast amount of invaluable material, most of which has not even been fully utilised in the Tribunal’s many trials.

To fulfill this potential, the repository needs to be structured into a full-fledged archive. Given that most of the materials have already been digitised, this should be a relatively straightforward and low-cost process.

Further, a rational mechanism must be developed to allow access to its sources, while respecting the confidentiality and sensitivity of documents. To do this successfully, the Tribunal will need to call in experts from existing archives that perform comparable functions, such as the aforementioned German Holocaust archive.

As the Tribunal prepares to close its doors and transfer its records to the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals in the next year, there is urgency to these tasks, as employees with valuable knowledge of the repository’s content are leaving the Tribunal.

While a team of competent archivists is currently processing the archives, a well-articulated policy must still be developed to ensure the accessibility of the full archives for posterity.

With the establishment of the Tribunal 22 years ago, the international community altered the course of history by making an unprecedented commitment to global justice.

Now it is time to make sure that the Tribunal’s legacy is preserved so that its history lives on.

Prof. Dr. Richard Wilson is the Gladstein Distinguished Chair of Human Rights and Professor of Law and Anthropology at the University of Connecticut Law School.

Dr. Robert Donia is a Research Associate at the University of Michigan’s Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies and has served as an expert witness for the prosecution at the Yugoslavia Tribunal.

Dr. Saskia Baas is a lecturer in international relations at Amsterdam University College in post-conflict development and transitional justice.

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