The Rule of Law in a Time of Lawlessness

By Brenda Weinberg for – 

We often wonder how enforceable international laws actually are, especially when there has seemingly been little to no incentive to comply or punishment for noncompliance. From blatant human rights violations in North Korea and China to attacks on sovereignty and self-determination by Russia in Ukraine, international governing bodies like the United Nations seem to have little effect in forcing compliance with international law. But the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has become an example of just how effective international law can be, and it illustrates the power that international treaties can bestow upon signatory nations. The ICTY claims that it has spearheaded the shift from impunity to accountability, brought thousands of victims to justice and given them a voice, and strengthened the rule of law.[1] A body of the United Nations, the ICTY prosecutes serious crimes committed during the wars in the former Yugoslavia, such as genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of the laws or customs of war, and tries their perpetrators. The most infamous of those crimes are in relation to the Srebrenica Massacre and the Siege of Sarajevo in which militaries systematically killed ethnic Croats, Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), and Serbs.

The ICTY has been supported fully by the European Union, which has demanded full cooperation with the ICTY from its potential candidate countries. Due to the economic power of the European Union, each of the nations of former Yugoslavia have acceded as members (Slovenia and Croatia), become candidate countries (Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia), or become potential candidate countries (Bosnia and Herzegovina and Kosovo). Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and Macedonia have been subject to the Stabilization and Association Process (SAP) to work toward accession into the EU, and cooperation with the ICTY became the centerpiece for those agreements.[2][3][4][5][6]

The accession of Croatia into the EU in 2013 has been a shining example of the success that these Stabilization and Association Agreements (SAA) have had in partnering with the ICTY to bring those accused of international crimes before the court. The European Council postponed opening negotiations for Croatia in March 2005 in the absence of a confirmation of full cooperation with the ICTY; specifically, the chief prosecutor claimed that Croatia failed to cooperate with the capture of Croatian fugitive Ante Gotovina, who served in the Croatian Homeland War as a general and had been in hiding since 2001.[7] Negotiations were officially launched in October 2005 after a positive report by the chief prosecutor, and Gotovina was eventually arrested in Spain in December 2005.[8]

As a war that drew lines based on nationality and ethnicity, it is no surprise that nationalists wished to protect and harbor those charged with war crimes. Public support for indictees caused resistance against the ICTY in each of the former Yugoslav countries, but especially in Serbia. Radovan Karadžić, President of Republika Srpska and Supreme Commander of its armed forces during the war, spent more than a decade as a “fugitive,” while openly practicing psychology in Belgrade under a fictitious name. After his arrest in July 2008, about 15,000 Serbian nationalists demonstrated in protest in Belgrade prior to his extradition to the ICTY in The Hague.[9] Many Serb nationalists still regard Karadžić as a hero and a defender of ethnic Serbs in Bosnia. Despite public sentiment in support of men like Karadžić, the pressure of the international community has forced cooperation with the ICTY.

Ultimately, the ICTY has proven incredibly successful. The official website offers court documents, interactive maps, court schedules, videos, and other information to the public, demonstrating the judicial process and offering transparency.[10] Since its establishment in 1993, the tribunal has indicted 161 individuals for serious violations of international humanitarian law, and all 161 have been arrested; Goran Hadžić became the last fugitive to be captured in July 2011. So far, the tribunal has concluded proceedings for 141 accused, and the remaining 20 are either currently at trial or before the appeals chamber. Together with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which has completed its work at the trial level for 90 of the 93 accused, with just six fugitives still at large, the ICTY has shown that international law is not simply a group of unenforceable treaties ignored by nations refusing to comply.[11]

Brenda Weinberg is a JD Candidate, Class of 2016. Woolston’s entry to the GlobalJustinceBlog is part of an assignment for the course International Criminal Law, taught by Professor Wayne McCormack.


  1. “The Tribunal’s Accomplishments in Justice and Law.” The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Last accessed September 14, 2014. Retrieved from
  2. Stabilisation and Association Agreement, European Communities-Serbia. Last accessed September 14, 2014. Retrieved from
  3. Stabilisation and Association Agreement, European Communities-Croatia. Last accessed September 14, 2014. Retrieved from
  4. Stabilisation and Association Agreement, European Communities-Albania. Last accessed September 14, 2014. Retrieved from
  5. Stabilisation and Association Agreement, European Communities-Macedonia. Last accessed September 14, 2014. Retrieved from
  6. Stabilisation and Association Agreement, European Communities-Bosnia and Herzegovina. Last accessed September 14, 2014. Retrieved from
  7. “EU Postpones Croatia Entry Talks.” BBC News. March 16, 2005. Retrieved from
  8. Imbarlina, Elizabeth, Ed. “Croatian Accession to the EU: Political Battles and Legal Challenges” Jurist. May 16, 2012. Retrieved from
  10. Flintoff, Corey. “Karadzic: War Criminal or Nationalist Hero?” NPR. July 22, 2008. Retrieved from
  11. “Status of Detainees.” Internaltional Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Last accessed September 14, 2014. Retrieved from