Tribunals Background

An important aspect of transitional justice is the ability to prosecute suspects of crimes such as genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity through international tribunals. Changes in the transitional justice landscape can be observed through the evolution of international criminal justice courts. The post-WWII Nuremberg Trial and Tokyo War Crime Trials served as the “first generation” transitional justice courts throughout 1945-1948. They were followed by the “second generation”: the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), and the International Criminal Court (ICC). The “third-generation” saw the evolution of hybrid courts and tribunals.


This article focuses on the second generation: the sister ICTY and ICTR tribunals and the ICC. The main purpose of this article to describe how these tribunals came into existence and to note some of their main accomplishments and challenges. This is the first of a three-part series on judicial mechanisms in transitional justice. Check back later for parts two and three.


International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY)

(Established 1993; operated 1993-2017)

161 indicted; 90 sentenced; 19 acquitted 

As the first international tribunal since the Nuremberg Trials, the ICTY holds a position of significance as a trailblazer for international jurisdiction. The ICTR was established in the Hague in 1993, after reports concerning mass atrocities, such as massacres, mass rape, torture and displacement committed throughout the region reached the UN. The disintegration of Yugoslavia had brought about widespread ethnic conflicts. Though no party was innocent, a majority of the crimes were committed by Bosnian-Serb forces, together with the Yugoslav army, in their attempt to wipe out Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats. In light of mass violence under a complicit government, the UN decided to create the ICTY to hold national leaders responsible for grave violations of international law committed in Yugoslavia after 1991 and to restore peace.


Throughout the ICTY’s 24-year run, many milestone decisions regarding genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity were established. For example, it was the first tribunal to prosecute and punish sexual violence as a crime against humanity, as it did in the case of Dusko Tadic. It successfully indicted high-level politicians and military personnel for some of the “worst wartime atrocities” since WWII. Former Bosnian-Serb commander, Ratko Mladic, was sentenced to life imprisonment and Bosnian-Serb politician, Radovan Karadzic, was prosecuted, amongst nearly 160 other indictees. Through victims’ testimonies, the ICTY gained legal expertise and a large amount of evidence that would be useful for future tribunals. In terms of the bigger picture, it led to a shift in thinking, in which people could now genuinely expect those guilty of war crimes to face judgement.

For the success of future international tribunals, lessons learned from criticisms geared at the ICTY are just as important. Many expressed frustration at the length of the Tribunal, partly attributed to the reality that capturing of fugitives has taken decades. Another consequence of delays in procedure was that former Yugoslav president, Slobodan Milosevic, died before he could be formally judged, and was quietly acquitted ten years after his passing. Others were discontent because they believed that the ICTY represented victor’s justice, since 66% of all those charged were Serbs. The overall experience was mixed: it certainly did hold important individuals accountable, yet was unable to bring peace and reconciliation to the region. Revelations regarding the roles that several Western countries played in the unravelling of the “humanitarian nightmare” also complicate matters regarding complicity. As flawed as the ICTY was, it marked the beginning of a process affirming the rule of international law.

International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR)

(Established 1994, operated 1995-2015)

93 indicted, 61 sentenced, 14 acquitted

The ICTR was established as a sister tribunal to the ICTY, in response to the civil war and ensuing genocide in Rwanda in 1994. In terms of its mandate, it was largely similar to the ICTY: bring justice to victims, deter others from repeating such crimes, and promote peace and reconciliation by restoring the rule of law. However, the ICTR’s mandate was narrower, as it only prosecuted crimes committed in 1994 within Rwanda. These sister tribunals shared a similar structure and an appellate court in The Hague, and prosecuted the same crimes. Together, they set important precedents for all future tribunals, and even paved the way for the creation of the ICC.

The ICTR had several important historic moments in its 20-year run. It was the first tribunal to sentence individuals for genocide-related crimes. For example, former Prime Minister Jean Kambanda was sentenced to life imprisonment on six counts of genocide. It also found Jean-Bosco Barayagwiza, chairman of a Rwandan radio station, guilty of masterminding media campaigns that incited civilians to commit acts of genocide. It was also the first institution to conclude that rape can be an act of genocide in a landmark case in 1998. Jean-Paul Akayesu, a former mayor, was charged with nine counts of genocide, several of which included the raping of Tutsi women in an effort to destroy the Tutsi population.

Amidst praise, the ICTR also faced criticism, some of which was similar to that directed at the ICTY. The small number of indictments, relative to the funds required to maintain the Tribunal and the years of its operation, were a disappointment to some. Others harshly criticized the ICTR’s bias, displayed in its unwillingness to try any crimes against humanity committed by the ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. As in the case of the ICTY, the ICTR faced difficulty in apprehending suspects due to its limited jurisdiction and lack of enforcement. This shared difficulty was one of the primary reasons the ICC came to be established.


Last Updated: 2 May 2018

Author: Sarah Kim