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I. Introduction

The armed conflict in Bosnia and Herzegovina,1 which lasted from 1992 to 1995, was characterized by grave violations of human rights including mass killings, rapes, widespread destruction, and displacement of the population.  Accountability for such heinous crimes in the form of fair and effective trials of perpetrators is critical to ensure justice and build respect for the rule of law in Bosnia.  To that end, the United Nations Security Council established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to address the widespread impunity resulting from the conflicts in the Balkans.2  To date, the ICTY has been relatively successful in trying individuals for the atrocities committed in the former Yugoslavia,3 including Bosnia.  However, by the end of its mandate, it will have prosecuted only a small number of top-level perpetrators of war crimes.4 

To continue with efforts to combat impunity, the War Crimes Chamber was established in Bosnia to bring justice for the most serious war crimes committed during the conflict. The War Crimes Chamber (WCC), which officially began operations in Sarajevo on March 9, 2005, represents a joint initiative of the ICTY and the Office of the High Representative (OHR).5  In addition to a limited number of cases referred to it by the ICTY, the mandate of the WCC includes trying cases initiated locally.  The WCC, together with the Organized Crime and General Crime Chambers, operates within the Criminal Division of the State Court of Bosnia.

The concept underlying the WCC initiative is that accountability for gross violations of human rights that took place during the conflict ultimately remains the responsibility of the people of Bosnia.6 Thus, although it presently contains a significant international component, the WCC is essentially a domestic institution operating under national law. There is an aggressive transition strategy for the phasing out of international involvement within a short timeframe.  The WCC therefore represents the latest model of an internationalized justice mechanism entrenched in a domestic legal system (other examples include the Regulation 64 panels in Kosovo and the Special Panels for Serious Crimes in East Timor).  Like other such justice mechanisms, the WCC operates on a relatively small budget—it currently functions on approximately 6 percent of the funds considered essential for the operation of the ICTY.7

The WCC, because of its placement within the domestic justice system and its strong commitment to taking ownership over the accountability process, offers tremendous potential to make an impact on the rebuilding of the rule of law in Bosnia.  Its location in Sarajevo makes the WCC more accessible to the local population than the ICTY.  Further, the WCC cases may resonate more profoundly with victims in Bosnia:  unlike the cases directed at more senior officials at the ICTY, the proceedings before the WCC will involve alleged mid- and low-level perpetrators who may have directly participated in the crimes committed during the conflict.  In addition, international involvement at the initial stages of the WCC’s development can contribute significantly to enhancing the short- and long-term capacity of professionals and institutions in Bosnia to conduct fair and effective war crimes trials.

As the WCC is still in the early stages of conducting trials, this report offers an overview of the key organs whose effective functioning is essential to ensure the WCC’s success.  In particular, the following areas are discussed: 1) the Special Department for War Crimes within the Office of the Prosecutor of the State Court; 2) the Criminal Defense Support Section; 3) the Witness and Victim Support Section; and 4) the Public Information and Outreach Section.  Within each section, we outline the strengths and accomplishments of the WCC.  We also highlight particular areas of concern, and make recommendations about where we believe the WCC can improve operations.  There are recommendations that require increased donor funding for their implementation, which are noted throughout the report.  Some recommendations, however, can be implemented by others, including officials in the Government of Bosnia and the WCC.  A consolidated list of recommendations is presented at the end of the report.

The report is primarily based on a mission Human Rights Watch conducted in Sarajevo in September 2005.  During the mission we interviewed various officials in those organs related to the effective functioning of the WCC including: the Special Department for War Crimes of the Office of the Prosecutor, the Criminal Defense Support Section, the Public Information and Outreach Section, the Witness Protection Support Unit, the Witness Support Section, the judiciary, the Court Management Section, the Detention Section and the Registry.  We also met with officials of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and members of local civil society.  During the period from October 2005 to January 2006, we conducted a number of interviews in person and by telephone, and received substantial material from officials via e-mail.  Many of the individuals we interviewed wished to speak candidly, but did not wish to be cited by name, so we have used generic terms where appropriate to protect the identity of these sources.

As noted above, the WCC represents a unique and valuable opportunity to hold perpetrators accountable for war crimes and build respect for the rule of law in Bosnia.  The WCC and its related institutions have already made notable progress in their establishment.  However, the real challenge of conducting fair and effective trials lies ahead.  Meeting this challenge will require sustained and considerable support as trials commence.  Human Rights Watch believes that the Government of Bosnia, as well as the international community as a whole, must provide the WCC and its institutions with the necessary assistance to ensure its success.  To that end, Human Rights Watch plans to monitor the WCC’s progress and issue follow-up reports accordingly.  

[1] Hereinafter Bosnia.

[2] United Nations Security Council, Resolution 827 (1993), S/Res/827.

[3] Human Rights Watch, “Real Progress in the Hague,” March 29, 2005 [online], (retrieved October 31, 2005).  To date, proceedings against eighty-eight persons have been concluded before the ICTY. Six indicted persons remain at large.  See “Judges in Milosevic case decide on future shape of trial,” JP/MO/1036e, December 13, 2005 [online], (retrieved December 19, 2005). 

[4] For the purpose of this document, the term “war crimes” refers to violations of international humanitarian law committed during the armed conflict, including genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

[5] See “Security Council briefed on establishment of War Crimes Chamber within State Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” SC/7888, October 8, 2003 [online], (retrieved October 31, 2005). 

[6] Office of the High Representative, “War Crimes Chamber Project: Project Implementation Plan - Registry Progress Report,” October 20, 2004 [online], (retrieved September 11, 2005), p. 4.

[7] Human Rights Watch telephone interview with Michael Johnson, Registrar of the State Court, New Hampshire, October 5, 2005.

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