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Mute Justice

As Bosnian Croat General Tihomir Blaskic waited limply in the dock last month, Claude Jorda, the French judge who serves as president of the U.N. War Crimes Tribunal, lingered over his judgment before a crammed courtroom gallery. He described village upon Muslim village that Blaskic's Croat forces had ravaged. He conceded that Muslim forces had also committed abuses but rejected the argument--so often made by defendants in these courtrooms and by belligerents on the ground--that one group's crimes excused another's. The lyrical presentation was so deliberate and so rhythmic--and actual decisions in this courtroom are so rare--that it seemed destined never to expire. Then, after nearly an hour, Jorda told Blaskic to rise:

"YOU ARE GUILTY, General Blaskic, of having ordered the commission of a crime against humanity for persecution of the Muslim civilians in Bosnia...

The crimes you committed, General Blaskic, are extremely serious. The acts of war carried out with disregard for international humanitarian law and in hatred of other people, the villages reduced to rubble, the houses and stables set on fire and destroyed, the people forced to abandon their homes, the lost and broken lives, are unacceptable... If armed conflict is unavoidable, those who have the power to make decisions and those who carry them out must ensure that the most basic rules governing the law of nations are respected...General Blaskic, you showed no respect for these rules, and this is something which you know. Consequently, the Trial Chamber sentences you to a prison sentence of 45 years imprisonment."

Blaskic gulped. Though his wife collapsed on the floor, wailing, the general did not dare turn to look at her. Instead, he remained frozen at the defendant's table, his stunned gaze fixed on the bench as the judges filed out of sight--as if groping for a sign of jest or an openness to reconsideration. He was 39 years old. Forty-five years was incomprehensible.

At the scene of the crimes, the reaction was a little different. The victims of Blaskic's attacks were largely oblivious to the proceedings in The Hague. The Bosnians themselves know next to nothing about the justice carried out in their name. Not even this landmark decision--Blaskic was the most senior war criminal in the tribunal's custody--was broadcast live back to Bosnia.

And yet the verdict is proof that the tribunal has come a long way since the U.N. Security Council established it in 1993. Tucked away in coastal Holland, the court has now sentenced 15 Serbs, Croats, and Muslims for war crimes and crimes against humanity. A week after convicting Blaskic, the tribunal put on trial the deputy commander of the Bosnian Serb forces that captured Srebrenica in July 1995 and murdered some 8,000 Muslim men and boys. In another of its three chambers, the prosecution launched the "Foca rape camp" trial, which marks the first time in history that a court has set out to prove that sexual assault constitutes a crime against humanity.

Today, the tribunal has 38 detainees in custody--five of whom have been captured by nato troops in the last four months. On April 3, the tribunal got another huge boost when heretofore docile French peacekeepers in Bosnia roused Momcilo Krajisnik, the monobrowed Serb hard-liner who served as wartime speaker of the Bosnian Serb parliament--and, many suspect, puppeteer behind Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. Those who plotted years of terrifying late-night knocks on doors are seeing the favor returned. Indeed, in a scene emblematic of the way this court is humbling the once all-powerful, nato forces led the cocksure Krajisnik into detention barefoot and in his pajamas.

To accommodate its exploding caseload, the tribunal has fortified its staff- -increasing it from just one member to a team of some 1,000 people with an annual budget of more than $100 million. Despite widespread forecasts of failure, the young court is now conducting complicated investigations in distant lands, incapacitating some of those who seek to undermine Bosnia's wobbly peace, and building a detailed historical account of the war that exposes the self-serving myths of its perpetrators.

In the Blaskic case, for example, the court convicted the Bosnian Croat general for effectively winking at the brutal slaughter of civilians. In so doing, the judges exposed the fallacy of one of the most prevalent exculpatory platitudes issued by local political and military leaders at the time of the conflict: that the crimes were committed by so-called uncontrolled elements. The court insisted that Blaskic (and military leaders like him) retained ample control of their forces and could have reined in their excesses if they so chose. As Justice Robert Jackson once said of Nuremberg, the U.N. court is going about establishing "incredible events by credible evidence."

This is important not merely because it means Balkan history books might someday contain the truth. The trials have also prodded the main actors in the wars in the former Yugoslavia--always driven first and foremost by regard for self--to turn on one another, producing more evidence. A few days after Jorda announced the steep Blaskic sentence, the newly elected, reformist Croatian government produced a stash of 700 documents that Croatian secret services had hidden--documents the government contends will absolve Blaskic of responsibility on appeal. (Nothing like a 45-year sentence to focus the mind.) According to the Croatian weekly Globus, when Dario Kordic, the Bosnian Croat political leader currently on trial for ordering and participating in massacres of Muslim civilians in central Bosnia, received word that these files had surfaced, incriminating him, he fainted in his detention cell.

And yet, if the tribunal wants to realize its highest and most oft-stated goal--breaking the Balkan cycle of violence--it must stop going about its business so quietly. Only three of the indictments are available online in Serbo-Croatian, and the tribunal's press office did not translate its press releases until February of this year.

The lack of interest found in Serb territory, where state propaganda has long trashed the court, is not surprising. Similarly, in Croatia it will take time for the newly elected government to create a domestic appetite for court news. But, in Bosnia, citizens would better understand the causes and consequences of the war if they watched witnesses, survivors, and, indeed, perpetrators testify. They would also gain official international acknowledgment of their suffering while watching some very deserving thugs pay for their sins. Yet only one Bosnian journalist was even present at the Hague for the Blaskic verdict, and she had to battle her editor in Sarajevo to eke out space on the evening news.

Some things, of course, are outside the tribunal's control. Arresting one of the three principal orchestrators of the war--Slobodan Milosevic, Ratko Mladic, or Karadzic--would grab the attention of many Bosnians who have written off the court. But that lies in the hands of nato peacekeepers and their diplomatic overlords, who are still too disposed to dress up real timidity as realpolitik. The tribunal, however, can do other things, like mete out speedier justice. The Blaskic trial took nearly three years to complete; at this pace, it would take the tribunal decades to complete the trials of just those suspects now in custody. The tempo will doubtless quicken as the process becomes routinized, precedents get established, and the tribunal establishes its own historical record of the war. But judges need to seize more control of their courtrooms by trimming the leisurely cigarette breaks and challenging some of the frivolous inquiries from defense lawyers, who are paid at a U.N. rate that gives those from the cash-strapped Balkans little incentive for brevity.

In October, the tribunal launched an outreach program to promote its work. Finally this small office has begun translating the tribunal's press releases into Serbo-Croatian. It has also helped Mirko Klarin, an independent journalist from the region, to secure funding for a weekly TV summary of the tribunal's activities. More important, the tribunal is thinking of staging portions of the trials on Balkan soil--a wise move, even considering the cost and security risks it would entail. As the old legal maxim goes, it is as important that justice be seen to be done as it is that justice be done. Long, redemptive judicial soliloquies will do little to advance the cause of peace if victims, perpetrators, and bystanders do not start watching.

Samantha Power is executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. Her trip was funded by an Open Society Institute Individual Project Fellowship.