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George Baumgarten

Israeli-American Jurist Heads U.N.’s Yugoslavia Tribunal

by George Baumgarten, United Nations Correspondent , January 30, 2013

Amid all the furor over the Palestinian “upgrade” vote and other mindless criticism of Israel, one story almost “sneaked by”, until noticed by this reporter: Theodor Meron, a Polish-born Israeli-American jurist, was recently appointed (or, more accurately, reappointed) to head the United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. Thus, all that Tribunal’s prosecutions for murder of civilians, attempted genocide and so-called “ethnic cleansing” are coming before a presiding judge who has practiced (and been partially-trained) in the institutions and before the courts of the Jewish state. He serves also on the Appeals bench, for both the Yugoslavia and Rwanda Tribunals.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) was formed in the late 1990’s, in the aftermath of the bitter civil war that raged in that country for nearly all of that last decade of the 20th Century. It involved—at one time or another, directly or indirectly—all the regions of that country, with the exception of Slovenia in the northwest, near northeastern Italy. Yugoslavia, it should be remembered, was a country that had never previously existed, until it was created de novo by the Versailles Conference, in the aftermath of the First World War. It contained a polyglot mix of ethnic populations (Slovenes, Croats, Serbs, Bonians, Montenegrins, Macednians, and Kosovars) that had a deeply-ingrained tradition of hostility toward--and even warring against--each other, often dating back hundreds of years. As a result, each of these groups eventually got its own state. Each of these states (Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Montenegro, Macedonia [officially, “The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”, or “F.Y.R.O.M.”] and Kosovo) is now a sovereign, independent entity. All are members of the United Nations except for Kosovo, whose membership has been blocked by Russia in the Security Council (although it is recognized by the U.S. and numerous other countries).

The Tribunal, therefore, was set up for those persons accused of war crimes or Crimes Against Humanity, who may be apprehended and brought before the Tribunal, which sits in Den Haag (The Hague), The Netherlands. It shares with its :sister tribunal” for Rwanda the distinction of being  devoted to a single country, as opposed to the International Criminal Court (I.C.C.), which may deal with crimes alleged to have been committed anywhere. The underlying principle governing such tribunals (developed at Nuremberg and Tokyo, after World War II) is this: It is not a crime for combat soldiers to attempt to kill the greatest number of enemy combat soldiers in battle. However, the moment any soldier (or anyone else) kills any innocent, unarmed civilians, it falls into the category of “Crimes Against Humanity”.

Theodor Meron was born in Kalisz, in what is today the province of Wielkopolskie, in West-Central Poland. After surviving the War, he came to Israel. He was educated at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and received graduate legal degrees at both Harvard and Cambridge. He is a Professor of International Law at both the Geneva Graduate Institute of International Studies and the New York University School of Law. Judge Meron is a member of the Institute of International Law, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Shakespeare Institute, among other organizations.

In his personal introduction on the Court’s website, Judge Meron spoke of the task confronting those who would prosecute persons responsible for the worst collective act of genocide in the last half century, save only that in Rwanda. Having served now twice on the Yugoslavia Tribunal (2003-’05 and 2011-present), Meron noted that “…we move toward the final years of the Tribunal’s existence”. These next years may be the last, but they will still be somewhat busy ones. Trials have been already held and concluded for 126 defendants, with a further 35 still in process  (18 at the trial level, with 17 in the Appeals process).

Meron notes that while what we call today “crimes against humanity” have taken place throughout recorded history, what has changed in the last 20 years is the universal determination that there shall be no impunity for any such acts. “…the Tribunal will continue to serve”, in Judge Meron’s words, “as an embodiment of the international community’s noblest aspirations for justice”.

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