The Role of Justice in the Former Yugoslavia: Antidote or Placebo for Coercive Appeasement?

Paul Williams, American University Washington College of Law
Patricia Taft


Throughout the 1990's, the approach of the European Union and the United States to the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia was one of coercive appeasement. By most professional and historical accounts, this approach was a failed one, with the consequences that over 250,000 civilians were killed, thousands raped and millions displaced. Throughout the conflict, the institutions of justice created by the international community frequently served as a mere placebo rather than an antidote to the dominant approach of coercive appeasement. Frequently key policymakers actively sought to constrain the role of justice during the peace building process. At times during the course of the conflicts, however, the norm of justice did guide European and American policymakers towards more effective approaches such as diplomacy backed by force and the indictment of war criminals. Regrettably, those charged with operating the institutions ofjustice often failed to comprehend the magnitude of their responsibilities and declined to fully utilize the mechanisms at their disposal to ensure the infusion of justice into the peace building process.

This article conducts a historical analysis of the interaction between the international policy approach of coercive appeasement and the norm and institutions of justice in the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. Coercive appeasement was the favored approach of the international mediators charged with halting the genocidal campaigns of the Serbian regime. Justice, which may provide an antidote to the approach of coercive appeasement, was at times marginalized and manipulated and frequently served as a placebo to both the mediators and the parties to the peace talks. Importantly, the Yugoslav Tribunal, established to indict and prosecute those responsible for war crimes all too often failed to fulfill its full potential. The reluctance of the international community to invoke the norm of justice as a viable alternative to the approach of coercive appeasement facilitated the ability of the Serbian regime to carry out genocide in Bosnia and attempted genocide in Kosovo.

This article will also demonstrate that despite the obvious lessons learned from the Bosnian conflict, the international community failed to sufficiently invoke the norm ofjustice and empower the Yugoslav Tribunal to indict and prosecute high level war criminals in the Kosovo conflict three years later.

In the following sections, the article will first define the five key elements of coercive appeasement. Then, using examples from the conflicts in Bosnia and Kosovo, it will illustrate how at various points in the conflicts, a greater reliance on the norm of justice could have provided a viable alternative to coercive appeasement. It will also critically examine the extent to which justice failed to adequately constrain the effects of coercive appeasement due to the inability or unwillingness of the Yugoslav Tribunal to effectively carry out its mandate.