Impact of the Yugoslav and Rwanda Tribunals: Lessons for the International Criminal Court


ICTJ and the Center for Global Affairs of New York University (NYU) co-hosted a panel discussion on the impact of international ad hoc tribunals in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and the possible lessons these courts’ experiences hold for the International Criminal Court (ICC).

In a discussion moderated by Jennifer Trahan of NYU Global Affairs, panelists Richard Goldstone, David Tolbert, Hassan Jallow, and Diane Orentlicher explored these issues from the perspective of actors and experts with rich experience working for international tribunals and extensively writing on related topics.


Jennifer Trahan, Assistant Clinical Professor of Global Affairs at NYU, set the framework of the discussion to analyze the impact of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR).

The ICTY and ICTR set landmark precedents in the burgeoning field of international law, with accomplishments including the prosecution of some of the highest-level perpetrators of human rights abuses, as well as the establishment of fair trial standards for domestic and international trials. Despite these victories, however, public opinion polls in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda show a gap between trial outcomes and their public perception. A large percentage of respondents indicate they are uninformed about the trials’ goals and judgments, and there are significant differences in impressions of the trials between various ethnic groups.

Public opinion

Discussants considered potential reasons for the disturbingly low public opinion of trials, including political interference and media bias. They discussed how a tribunal can provide the vital opening to begin the process for justice and reconciliation, but may not fully complete the process. Orentlicher pointed out that an important impact of the ICTY was the prevention of impunity through prosecutions of high-ranking politicians. The courts also contributed to ending genocide denial in both the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Accountability and Reconciliation

The second question dealt with the ability of the ICTY and ICTR to realistically fulfill the goals of “achieving accountability and promoting reconciliation” documented in the tribunals’ mandates. The discussants agreed that while these goals were indeed lofty, these mandates were an integral part of the process to establish links between justice and peace. Though the ICTY and ICTR may not have singlehandedly promoted reconciliation, the idea that reconciliation will not occur without justice being established establishes the tribunals as a catalytic step in its achievement.


The third question explored the importance of outreach activities to communicate a trial’s judgments with affected communities. Tolbert explained how this was addressed at the ICTY through the “bridging the gap” program, where tribunal members visited local communities to inform them about the trial proceedings and answer questions. Despite this, outreach programs continue to be viewed as a nonessential component of both tribunals work, resulting in severe funding issues.

Judge Jallow described a similar project the ICTR wishes to implement, which would publish the facts of the Rwandan genocide based on judicial rulings. The ICTR is currently looking elsewhere to fund the project, as the court mandate has not allocated funds for the undertaking.

Political Denial

The fourth question asked panelists to examine ways to combat political denial of genocide and crimes against humanity, focusing on the importance of cooperation with governments. The ICTR’s relationship with the Rwandan government has drastically improved in the last decade, leading to a more integrated approach to achieving justice. A well-developed outreach program can effectively convey international judgments to national governments, as well as decrease instances of political denial and governmental obstacles.


The fifth question explored how the International Criminal Court (ICC) could achieve better coordination with domestic courts. The 11 bis cases— where cases from the ICTY were transferred back to national courts for trial—provide an example of how international courts can work effectively with domestic courts through training programs bolstering domestic legal systems. While the ICC is not a “development” agency, instituting legal reform and building judicial capacity can have decisive impacts on both a nation’s development and the quest for achieving widespread justice.

ICC Recommendations

Agreeing that the current pace of the ICC is too slow, the panelists recommended the ICC issue a larger number of arrest warrants, and more efficiently deliver trial verdicts. Since the ICC can only take on a limited number of cases, it is imperative that the the court provide a clear and thorough explanation of the logic behind selecting these cases. Panelists agreed that if the ICC functions in isolation from domestic courts, its proceedings will remain distanced from its proposed constituents. Without developing national dialogue, training programs, and bolstering legal capacity, the court will not be able to provide a sense of thorough justice.

Q & A

The panel concluded with an audience question and answer session. Question topics included the importance of informing international judges of their responsibility to citizens, potential prosecutions of the Rwandan Patriotic Force security forces, and the possible missed opportunity for international justice in Iraq.

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