Investigating War Crimes: Bringing Demons to Justice

The ICTY in The Hague
Source: icty.org

The international community is a confusing one with political gridlock and national interests stalling imperative decisions. I find that the challenges facing the UN are daunting and will continue to plague the world for years to come. Even so, I am not a pessimist, I believe the UN and other international organizations complete incredible tasks that would have been unthinkable for the League of Nations or the early United Nations. One such accomplishment is the creation and execution of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (1993).  The ICTY is first court of its kind since post WWII. It has indicted 161 individuals, and sentenced 74 human rights violators, and is a massive step forward in international criminal proceedings.

UNSC Resolution 827 established the creation of a criminal court to properly deal with the horrid crimes that took place in the Former Yugoslavia, now including Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo, and Vojvodina. The breakup of the USSR caused dramatic ramifications across the ex-Communist bloc, and gave way to the atrocities in Yugoslavia. These various territories were home to some of the worst Crimes against Humanity in the 20th century. Crimes perpetrated by many of the groups within Yugoslavia, which include ethnic cleansing, mass detention, systematic rape, and mass murder.  Looking at history, I thought we were done with ethic cleansing and other such crimes, but with Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the world came to see that the road for human rights was still going to be a bumpy ride.

Dr. John Cencich speaking about his experiences in the former Yugoslavia.

Dr. John Cencich speaking about his experiences in the former Yugoslavia.

This past week, The Reiff Center had the honor of hosting John Cencich, a UN Investigator for the ICTY and professor at California University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Cencich presented a firsthand account of many interesting and enthralling events that took place while he worked on the ground. I would like to point out some of the biggest takeaways that come from his talk.

Cencich worked on some pretty gruesome cases, attempting to bring the perpetrators of the crimes to justice. He said it correctly, “the UN had to get it right this time.” For the ICTY, the UN hired career investigators and prosecutors. Conversely, looking back at The Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials of WWII, the UN received a lot of flack for using lawyers as investigators, and not following proper legal procedures in the courts. The ICTY hired persons whose livelihoods are based on criminal investigation, and Cencich got himself on a team.  After receiving his briefing on the political and social landscape, he began his work in Bosnia. The UN investigators needed to prove several points in order to validate the use of an international court system. War crimes, crimes against humanity, an international aspect to the conflict, and that the victims were “protected persons” all had to be proved before the investigators could begin arresting perpetrators.

In order to prove the necessary legal standing of the UN investigation, investigators needed to travel throughout Yugoslavia, collecting anecdotal and forensic evidence. Cencich talked of elaborate exhumations that he was party to, as well as extensive interviews with victims and perpetrators alike. Cencich’s main goal was to connect the proven human rights violations to the “top dogs” of the various organizations responsible for the crimes against humanity. I will outline one of the human rights violations he investigated to give you an idea of the work he was doing. Cencich entitled this event: “Wooden Rifles.” The Bosnian Croats forced 4 Bosnian Muslims to dress as Croats, using them as a diversion.   Interestingly, these 4 men survived as they were able to convey that they were disguised to their brethren. The rest of the Muslims were used as human shields and were shot to death by the enemy. This is just one example of many that Dr. Cencich was tasked to investigate throughout the Former Yugoslavia.

Bosnia and Herzegovina, Srebrenica-Potočari Cemetery to Genocide Victims of Former Yugoslavian Wars.
Source: International Center for Transitional Justice

Muslims, Croats, Bosnians, Serbs, Christians; it seems like an ethnic or religious based conflict, which ideologically it could be argued as such. Still, in my findings, all conflict is to further power. Individuals at the top of the food chain wanted to expand their own influence, wealth, and power, using ideology as a cover. The quest for a “greater Serbia” may have been the start of a ‘noble’ ideology for the Serbs, but evil leaders warped it to match their own goals.

International cooperation may seem like a grand foreign idea to many of us, but Cencich worked first hand with many different groups in order to complete missions. He describes missions that involved Frenchmen, Italians, Spaniards, and Dutchmen.  2 tanks, 2 helicopters, and 200 men of various nationalities accompanied him on a mission to arrest a large profile target. He claims that in his efforts, the international team presented an impressive level of professionalism and cooperation. I find this to be an exciting example of how different statesmen can come together and do good for the international community. This is the future of how the international system will function (at least in an ideal world).

Being a UN war crimes investigator means relying on lots of different experiences - professional, personal, cultural, and instinct.

Being a UN war crimes investigator means relying on lots of different experiences – professional, personal, cultural, and instinct.

John Cencich allowed me and others a small glimpse into the world of a UN investigator. His experiences embody something that not many of us can imagine. He dealt with some of the world’s most infamous human rights violators, he was tailed by spies, and came back with several symptoms of PTSD. While not an easy job, Cencich demonstrated his capability in a critical position in the fight for international justice. Justice is worth fighting for, and the international field is vital to finding a path to justice for the victims of gross human rights violations.

The ICTY provided an early blueprint for the International Criminal Court (ICC). I, and the International community will not stand for continued human rights violations, and the ICTY and the ICC are the first steps to adding a deterrent to violators, and a punitive system for those who choose to violate human right norms. The Reiff Center is truly thankful to John Cencich for giving us the opportunity to share yet another facet of the quest for Justice. This journey is one the previous generation has started, and one that my generation must continue. The task will be arduous, but worthy of our very best efforts. Demons still pervade this world, and it is up to people like John Cencich and us to make sure they are held accountable for their actions.

To learn more about Dr. John Cencich, and his work in the Former Yugoslavia, check out his book, The Devil’s Garden!

The views expressed in this post solely reflect the author’s opinion, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Reiff Center or Christopher Newport University.