Interview with Serge Brammertz, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia

Serge Brammertz, Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia

9 June 2011 – Serge Brammertz has served as the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) since November 2007. He took up his post after serving as Commissioner of the UN International Independent Investigation Commission into the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri and other killings in that country. Previously, he served as Deputy Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, and spent many years as a lawyer in his native Belgium.

UN News Centre: You briefed the Security Council this week - what were your key messages and what did you hear in response?

Serge Brammertz: It was mainly to explain where we are in relation to our work, with the main highlight being the recent arrest of General Ratko Mladic, one of the two last fugitives we were looking for during the last 16 years. This was, for sure, an important part of my presentation and was recognized as a very important step by Security Council members. The other aspects we discussed were more in relation to organizational issues. As you know, we are in the so-called completion strategy, which means that we have to close theAt the end of the day, especially if you also look at other international tribunals, having indicted 161 persons during this period is an absolutely satisfactory result tribunal in three to four years time and have to finish the ongoing trials and appeals, and we discussed a number of organizational problems in this regard.

UN News Centre: What does the closure plan mean for ICTY and its workload and also in relation to staffing issues?

Serge Brammertz: It’s quite logical that if an institution has a final date, then staff members start looking for more secure jobs outside the tribunal. This departure of staff over the last six to 12 months is creating a problem in terms of ensuring that the ongoing trials can be finalized. It’s an issue. We are starting to recruit again, but in terms of institutional knowledge and continuity, it’s a very bad development.

UN News Centre: Will that impact negatively on your office’s work?

Serge Brammertz: We hope not, but it is an area of concern. The President of the Tribunal mentioned yesterday that this has already had impact on the judgment writing, on the preparation for trials… so it has had an impact and is of course slowing down the advancement of the trials.

Serge Brammertz addresses UN Security Council meeting, 6 June 2011

UN News Centre: The ICTY was not expected to be in existence for so long? How do you look back at the ICTY’s work?

Serge Brammertz: It’s an ad hoc tribunal which initially was created for a very limited timeline and I don’t that think that the Security Council – when the decision was taken in 1993 to create the tribunal – was imagining that it would last 16, or before it closes, 20 years. But let’s come back to the origin of why the tribunal has been set up: we’re speaking about a war in the middle of Europe in the 1990s with tens of thousands of victims, where still today there are still big problems in reconciliation, and there are still big problems in having war crimes perpetrators prosecuted. The challenge of addressing the atrocities which had been committed in the region for the tribunal was immense. So at the end of the day, especially if you also look at other international tribunals, having indicted 161 persons during this period is an absolutely satisfactory result.

UN News Centre: How do you respond to criticisms that the ICTY cannot do its job properly given a lack of resources, and that it is illegitimate?

Serge Brammertz: All international institutions have their critics and that allows for us to explain why we’re there. But the question about legitimacy: the tribunal was created by the Security Council, and I don’t think there’s a body more qualified to take these kinds of very important decisions.

Of course, if you look into the different ethnic groups, if I may say, in the former Yugoslavia, we see even today that persons prosecuted and convicted by the tribunal are seen as heroes in their local communities. We have seen also in the past that persons convicted, after having served their sentence, are taken by government plane back home and are received like heroes. So there is still a lot of outreach to be done; a lot of explanation for local populations as to why there’s nothing heroic about killing civilians, why there’s nothing heroic about killing prisoners. One of the reasons why people have difficulties accepting this is that it’s difficult for them to accept that people they trusted for years during the war were only pursuing their personal agenda. So they have difficulties accepting that those so-called trusted persons are war criminals who abused their trust.

UN News Centre: How are the ICTY’s outreach activities helping change that?

Serge Brammertz: We are a criminal court. We are a prosecution service. We are dealing with very complex cases. So we are only fulfilling one part of this job which at the end of the day has to lead to reconciliation. It’s very important to explain the work we are doing. We are in The Hague; it’s relatively far away from the region; we are functioning in English and French, with translation into the local language – but of course it creates some distance. Those are complicated proceedings.

But we are also asking the local governments to take more responsibility because what we see is that – we have seen it after the [Ante] Gotovina judgement in Croatia, we have seen it after a number of judgments where Serbian nationals were convicted – that there is still a lot of criticism coming from the governments not supporting international justice, not necessarily accepting that crimes have been committed, but pointing the finger to The Hague and saying that it’s anti-Serb, anti-Croat or anti-Bosnian.

UN News Centre: When it comes to justice, some say local courts are preferable to international tribunals for reasons to do with accountability and perceptions of legitimacy. What are your thoughts?

Serge Brammertz: There can be no doubt that the best place to have criminal justice performed is inside the community which is the victims’ and perpetrators’ community. Because it’s much closer to their natural environment, it’s in their language and respecting their legal frameworks. I’m absolutely in favour of having trials conducted locally.

When the tribunal was created in 1993, there was no local justice which was considered objective enough to deal with those kinds of war crimes. That’s why the tribunal was set up and that’s why between 1993 and 2004, the tribunal has indicted 161 so-called “main responsibles.” Luckily, in the meantime, over the last five years, very strong local national justice [instruments] have been developed. What we are seeing today is that there are hundreds of ongoing trials, mainly in Bosnia but also in Croatia and Serbia, sometimes against their own nationals, for war crimes committed. That’s a very important development. And what we have done on our side, for the last three years, is integrate liaison prosecutors from Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia into our office to give this very strong message that prosecutors within the UN or in the national prosecution office are working towards the same objectives: fighting against impunity and bringing to justice those who committed crimes.

UN News Centre: How do you balance the need to present indictments in time against victims’ needs?

Serge Brammertz: You know, I said after the arrest of [Ratko] Mladic that the arrest is taking place very late. It’s hopefully not too late. We hope that it will be possible to bring his trial and his case to a good end. Of course it took too long. I’ve asked the Serbian authorities to explain, to investigate how it could happen, how he could evade justice for so many years. I’ve said on a number of occasions that if it finally succeeded, it’s also because the international community maintained pressure on Serbia to get this done. Why? Three weeks ago, in the latest opinion polls in Serbia, 40 per cent of the population considered Mladic a hero, more than 50 per cent were against his arrest, and 78 per cent were saying that if they had information on his hiding place, they would not give it to the authorities. And this is one of the big problems – that even after so many years there is still very strong support for him in the region.

For the victims, I have been to Sarajevo 10 times, and to Srebrenica, over the last three years. I was in Srebrenica a few months ago, where as you know, more than 7,000 men and boys were executed over a few days’ time. I spoke with a woman in Srebrenica who lost many members of her family; she lost 42 members of her family, her father, her brothers, her sons. For some of her sons even the bodies have not been found yet. And for them the number one request to the international community was always “we want to see Mladic in The Hague.”

So for the victims it cannot bring back their loved ones, it will not diminish their suffering. But I have seen them in The Hague for the initial appearance and they are very pleased – if you can speak about pleased in this context – that finally he has been arrested and transferred to The Hague.

UN News Centre: What do the recent arrests mean for your office and the tribunal?

Prosecutor Brammertz speaks to reporters

Serge Brammertz: The impact for our tribunal is that we have an additional high-profile case. We have to put a trial team together. Mladic will need the necessary time to prepare his defence. We will see how many months it will rake before the trial can start. So it will, of course, have an impact on the completion strategy, it will have an impact on the downsizing of the Tribunal, but for good reasons. We have always said that the only good solution is to have Mladic arrested during the current lifetime of the tribunal and to have him prosecute and judged by the ICTY in its current form.

UN News Centre: What motivates you to do what you do?

Serge Brammertz: It’s when you meet with victims’ organizations, when you go Srebrenica or to other places in the region, and you see the suffering of such an important part of the population, the weak link in the society; and then you look at who the perpetrators are and they are those who had the main duty to protect, they had the main duty to help those they finally exterminated and killed. So, it is, from a personal perspective, very rewarding to play a positive role and from a professional perspective, it’s extremely challenging to work in this international environment with a very dedicated team of international prosecutors and investigators and analysts. It’s really a mixture of those two aspects.

UN News Centre: You have been in this job for four years, after serving with the UN International Independent Investigation Commission in Lebanon and the International Criminal Court, in addition to the Belgian legal system – where do you see yourself in a few years, when ICTY’s work is done?

Serge Brammertz: It’s difficult to say. I’m on a kind of special leave from my Belgian judicial functions, and I’ve had the privilege of working in the international field for nine years. I’m very much looking forward to working on the Mladic trial and I have honestly no idea what I will do afterwards.