What You Need To Know:
✓ When prosecuting war crimes, the hardest thing is to connect crimes in the field to the political office that ordered it
✓ Most, and even succeeding governments do not want to hand over govt documents to be used in war crimes trials
✓ Videos and confessions are not easily admissible as evidence in international courts
✓ Reconciliation, not justice, is most important in prosecuting war crimes
Nerma Jelacic, Head of External Relations for the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, spoke with Hromadske's Ian Bateson on the difficulties in prosecuting war crimes.
“The hardest part is finding the evidence to hold leaders accountable," said Jelacic. "Bringing war criminals to justice if they are perpetrators of the crimes. Blood on their hands.”
Jelacic's experience comes from working on the war crimes tribunals in the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990s, where she said it was very difficult to connect actions taking place sometimes thousands of miles away with the political leadership. The breadcrumb trail is often very difficult to trace, especially if the government is not willing to hand over documentation.
“In a court of law it required much more. It required obtaining access to Serbian state and military archives. Obtaining access to intercepted conversations. Insider witnesses, people who worked with Milosevic.. That is a very hard work,” stated Jelacic.
When asked about what kinds of documents would be considered as strong evidence for war crimes such as YouTube videos capturing a residential neighborhood being shelled by artillery Jelacic responded: "“It’s not simple as that. It depends on whether the civilian area or used by the opposing military group or armed forces as a base from which attacks were launched from the other side.”
Even video confessions - like those of the three Russian soldiers captured near Shchastya in Luhansk Oblast, or Putin's admission that Russia as behind the annexation of Crimea - might not be seen as solid of evidence as one can expect.
“In law, the video itself or the interview itself would not be enough. You would have to prove that the individual had de facto command with the troops on the ground that were committing the crimes," claims Jelacic.
At the end though, Jelacic believes that these tribunals have not had a positive impact on Bosnia where: "Bosnia remains a multi-ethnic society but you have different ethnicities that are not embracing each other or recognizing each other’s pain and just sticking to their points.”
Most important for Jelacic is to have reconciliation, something that Ukraine and societies in future wars should take careful note of.
“As difficult as it is to have an inner reflection, even when you are defending yourself from aggression, it is possible to commit war crimes even in a just war. The sooner societies start dealing with those elements on their side the sooner they will be able to shake the hand with the opponent’s side.”
Hromadske International's Ian Bateson spoke with Nerma Jelacic on June 6, 2015.