Righting Yugoslavia's wrongs

Righting Yugoslavia's wrongs

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Law students helping to try war criminals from Yugoslavian civil wars

Agnes Bugaj was just a young girl during the Yugoslavian civil wars and has only foggy memories of hearing stories in the news about the bloodshed.

But this spring, she’s one of three University of Iowa law students who are assisting the United Nation’s criminal tribunal trying the brutal leaders of the former Yugoslavia for war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.

“It’s not something I was cognizant of at the time it was happening,” says Bugaj, who was 6 when the war ended in 1995. “But looking back, it’s interesting that I’m involved in something that happened so long ago in my childhood.”

Agnes Bugaj, Jason Emmanuel, Denise Patters
From left, Agnes Bugaj, Jason Emmanuel, Denise Patters

The tribunal is the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), established in 1993 by the United Nations in The Hague, Netherlands, to prosecute perpetrators of war crimes committed in the territory of the former Yugoslavia during its breakup and civil war. The war started after the seccession of the republics of Croatia and Slovenia and intensified when Bosnia-Herzegovina declared independence, setting off a campaign of bloody ethnic cleansing involving the country’s three main ethnic groups—Serbs, Croats, and Bosnian Muslims. The civil war ended with the Dayton peace accords later that year, although the tribunal also has jurisdiction and prosecutes crimes committed since then, including during the conflict in Kosovo in 1999.

Pursuing internships abroad is a growing trend at the University of Iowa. To read a related story, visit now.uiowa.edu/2013/03/internships-abroad-grow-popularity.

In response, the ICTY has indicted and tried 161 suspected war criminals. Most of those trials are complete and the work is starting to wind down, with only three defendants on trial: Radovan Karadzic, the leader of the short-lived state within Bosnia intended for ethnic Serbs, and alleged mastermind of the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the village of Srebernica; Ratko Mladic, his former military chief; and Goran Hadzic, president of an independent breakaway Serbian state within Croatia.

The trials are expected to end by 2014, and appeals are still being heard by those convicted in past trials. Second year law student Bugaj is working in the tribunal’s prosecutor’s office and is assisting in the Hadzic trial. Second year law student Jason Emmanual is in the chamber’s division of the Karadzic trial, and third year student Denise Patters is in the Appeals Chambers and a member of the legal team for Vlastimir Djordjevic, who was convicted in 2011.

Their work is the nuts and bolts of the law—drafting legal memos, finding documents, responding to requests, and preparing evidence. Still, given the historical gravity of the cases, the students know their work isn’t just routine.

“It’s so humbling to know that I’ll be helping to adjudicate the prosecution of war criminals,” says Patters. “This is genocide, this is mass murder and the tribunal can’t make this right, but I hope my work will contribute a small part to justice and helping to make sense of this. And I hope it has some level of deterrence against it happening again.”

But as Emmanuel notes, a similar situation is playing out right now in Syria, with murder, war crimes, and rape used as a weapon as they were in Yugoslavia’s breakup. He says the ICTY’s work will likely set at tone for trials that seem inevitable from the Syrian conflict, as the ICTY has tried so many people for war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity that it’s collected an enormous amount of jurisprudence relating to those cases.

“One of the strengths of tribunals like this is that they help set precedent in other areas of international law and lay the foundation for justice in future conflicts,” he says.

Patters has experience at the ICTY before. She visited the court during a trip to Europe two years ago and saw part of the Karadzic trial. She also visited Croatia, a former republic of Yugoslavia, and saw the remnants of the war in the city of Zadar.

“It’s a beautiful port city on the Adriatic, and as you come in from the airport, you drive past an old tank,” she says.

A leftover from a crime against humanity for which she hopes to bring some measure of justice.


Tom Snee, University Communication and Marketing, office: 319-384-0010; cell: 319-541-8434


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