U.N. war crimes tribunal urges Balkan leaders to carry on its work

SARAJEVO (Reuters) - Authorities in the former Yugoslavia will need to harness a spirit of reconciliation to pursue the legacy of the United Nations war crimes tribunal in bringing justice to victims once it closes down, its president said on Saturday.

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The Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which has been in operation since 1993, shuts its doors at the end of this year.

It has prosecuted hundreds of people for war crimes committed in the wars that followed the break-up of the former Yugoslavia in 1991/2.

Regional judicial, politic and civic authorities will have responsibility for the hundreds of cases still outstanding from next year, a task the ICTY president said would not be easy.

“The ball will be in your court...,” Carmel Agius told a conference on the tribunal’s legacy in Sarajevo. “I believe it is possible and ... that the ICTY through our existence has provided you with many of the tools that you will need.”

Reconciliation has been slow among Serbs, Croats and Bosniak Muslims, who fought each others during the Yugoslav wars. Politicians on all sides undermine judicial accountability for war crimes and support glorification of war criminals as heroes.

Perceptions of the tribunal’s work, meanwhile, are mixed across the region, with officials in both Serbia and Croatia accusing it of bias, and some saying it has failed to promote the process of reconciliation in a still volatile region.

The court prosecuted Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic, who died during his trial. Last year it convicted wartime Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic of genocide against Bosnian Muslims and jailed him for 40 years. A verdict in the genocide trial of Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic is expected later this year.

“The ICTY has met its responsibility to bring to justice those most responsible for the atrocities committed during the wars of the 1990s,” Agius said. Now, regional authorities needed to carry on its work.

“It will be up to you to reconcile with each other, more fundamentally to want to reconcile with each other and to deliver justice to all those who still cry for it,” Agius said.

The European Union, which both Serbia and Bosnia aspire to join, has made clear that failure to bury past enmities will harm the countries’ accession prospects.

“Dealing with the past in the regional context is embedded in our enlargement process for this region and it’s a clear accession requirement,” said Khaldoun Sinno, the deputy head of the EU delegation in Bosnia. “There will be no European future without serious and credible effort in this respect.”

Reporting by Daria Sito-Sucic; editing by John Stonestreet