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A public debate at the UN on April 10 will serve up a revisionist denial of the worst killings in Europe since the end of World War II: the ethnic slaughter in the former Yugoslavia that horrified the world in the 1990s. While the session's ostensible purpose is to take "a closer look at the long-term impact of international criminal justice, in particular as it relates to reconciliation..." it is unlikely much thoughtful discussion will occur.

The debate's convener, Vuk Jeremic, president of the United Nations General Assembly, is former foreign minister of Serbia. Under previous governments, Serbia had taken some significant steps to arrest war crimes suspects and prosecute wartime abuses by Serbian forces in Croatia and Kosovo. Angered by a tribunal appeals decision last November that freed two Croatian generals convicted of crimes against Serbs -- admittedly a controversial reversal, Jeremic decided to use his General Assembly authority to organize a "debate" to serve as cover for an auto-da-fe of the tribunal.

One of the event's reported keynoters will be Tomislav Nikolic, president of Serbia and leader of the Serbian Progressive Party. Nikolic had split from the Serbian Radical Party, whose founder, Vojislav Seselj, is on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The kind of reconciliation he seeks can be gleaned from his characterization of the mass killing in Srebrenica in July 1995. There in the course of a few days Bosnian Serb forces murdered as many as 8,000 Muslim men and boys -- the worst single act of killing in Europe since the Holocaust. The International Court of Justice and the judges of the Yugoslav tribunal ruled the killings genocide. However, in a June 2012 statement, President Nikolic, while recognizing "grave war crimes," claimed that "there was no genocide in Srebrenica."

The Yugoslav war crimes tribunal was established by UN Security Council resolution 827, on May 25, 1993, as the 1990s Balkan Wars spiraled downward into deepening horror. The Security Council, for the first time, determined that mass slaughter and ethnic cleansing amounted to a threat to international security, and the creation of the tribunal proved game-changing.

The Security Council's act of creation spawned a series of country-specific international tribunals, all born of unspeakable human suffering. Resolution 827 signaled an end to the categorical impunity previously associated with such crimes and jump-started the momentum that led to the establishment of the permanent International Criminal Court.

A year later, following the genocide in Rwanda, the council created a second ad hoc tribunal, mandating it to bring about "national reconciliation" through trials. The ambitious objectives of reconciliation and deterrence became indelibly linked with the tribunals' work. While well-intended, these far-reaching objectives have proven difficult. Complex criminal trials of military commanders and political leaders have not provided a ready vehicle for the broad goals of reconciliation and quick deterrence. Trials first and foremost involve determining guilt or innocence on a specific number of criminal charges. These proceedings do not provide a comprehensive historical accounting.

The great expectations that grew alongside the tribunals may also be linked to the romanticized conventional understanding of the impact of the Nuremberg trials in post-war Germany. These epochal trials began the process of reconciliation, but this took decades. The international and subsequent German trials forged the core of an irrefutable historical record of responsibility that has made revisionist denials difficult, but it took truth telling, public education, and wrenching soul searching to change attitudes and heal the scars brought about by mass crimes.

The tribunals' important deterrent function has been frequently cited by diplomats, judicial officials and activists to bolster support for continued trials and funding. In domestic settings, the real prospect of criminal justice does serve as a deterrent, but crimes surely continue. On the highly varied and uneven international landscape, the inevitability of criminal sanction for mass crimes is far less certain. And international justice has been marked by a disturbing double standard -- with a buffer of impunity for those in the most powerful governments and those they actively protect elsewhere.

The ICC has had some local deterrent effect, but even the symbolic effect of seeing once seemingly omnipotent accused like Charles Taylor, Slobodan Milosevic, and Uhuru Kenyatta standing in the dock is just beginning to be felt. It will take substantially more trials and convictions for international justice to pack a meaningful deterrent punch.

And yet international trials for the most serious crimes do realize an important inherent good. While not necessarily bringing reconciliation or deterring future crimes in the short term, they can, by honoring victims, rendering justice and imposing punishment on the guilty, demonstrate the rule of law in the communities most affected by the crimes. And these trials signal that impunity for such crimes is ending.

These are some of the issues that should be aired in the General Assembly debate. Even though tomorrow there may be a few constructive offerings, these questions most likely will not be addressed.

The creation of the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal moved the goal posts in enforcing fundamental human rights and the broader efforts toward international justice are rewriting key rules of international relations and diplomacy. Countries with a more constructive agenda need to find a way to debate these and other lessons as we near the 20th anniversary of the Yugoslavia tribunal.

Richard Dicker is director of international justice at Human Rights Watch


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