Dr. Serge Brammertz was appointed by the United Nations Security Council to serve as Prosecutor of the International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals. He previously served as Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia from 1 January 2008 until its closure at the end of 2017.
Dr. Brammertz has served for more than a decade in senior positions charged with investigating and prosecuting grave international crimes. Prior to his current appointment, in January 2006 United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan appointed him as Commissioner of the United Nations International Independent Investigation Commission into the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, a post he held until the end of 2007. Previously, in September 2003 he was elected by the Assembly of State Parties as the first Deputy Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court. In that capacity, he was in charge of establishing the Investigations Division of the Office of the Prosecutor, and initiated the first ICC investigations in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Darfur. Prior to his international appointments, Dr. Brammertz was first a national magistrate then the head of the Federal Prosecution of the Kingdom of Belgium. In these roles, he supervised numerous investigations and trials related to cases of organised crime, terrorism, international drug trafficking, human trafficking and violations of international humanitarian law.
In this conversation, I speak to Dr. Serge Brammertz, Chief Prosecutor of the United Nations International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Trials. Dr. Brammertz is one of the world’s foremost experts on international criminal law, and we discuss the role & purpose of international courts, and the role of justice in achieving, and maintaining, peace.
Q: What is the purpose of the international courts?
[Serge Brammertz]: The law is a crucial pillar in every society. It sets the rules for societal coexistence. National courts exist to enforce the criminal law and adjudicate disputes. International courts serve the same purposes, just on a different level. International courts adjudicate, for example, disputes between states as well as international crimes.
National courts can also address international crimes, as most countries have laws against war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide. However, conflicts often devastate the national judicial systems, making them incapable of addressing such crimes. Worse still, those in power, who should protect their citizens, are frequently the perpetrators.
This situation was evident in the former Yugoslavia, where the conflict involved multiple states, and impartial prosecution was impossible due to prevailing biases. Consequently, the Security Council established the Yugoslav tribunal. This was the first international criminal tribunal since the Nuremberg trials. This tribunal, located in The Hague in the Netherlands, applied international law, and offered an objective approach, distinct from national courts.
In Rwanda, following the Genocide against the Tutsi that left over 800,000 dead and the judicial system in ruins, the Security Council set up another Tribunal for Rwanda. This time, it was headquartered in neighbouring Tanzania.
Thirty years later, domestic judiciaries have been rebuilt and are resuming their roles in these regions.
These ad hoc tribunals had primacy over national jurisdictions. As Chief Prosecutor, I was empowered to select cases based on my investigations. In total, the Yugoslav and Rwanda Tribunals indicted 254 individuals from the two regions. In contrast, the International Criminal Court (ICC), the only permanent international court, operates differently. It adheres to the principle of complementarity, intervening only when a nation is unable or unwilling to prosecute. Thus, the ICC is a court of last resort, stepping in only when national authorities fail to fulfil their responsibilities. In practice, it will only be hearing a small number of cases from any particular conflict.
Q: What is the importance of accountability?
[Serge Brammertz]: Historically, conflicts typically ended with the major players negotiating peace agreements, often including amnesties. The more brutal and involved in crimes a party was, the more significant their role at the negotiation table. This approach changed after the Second World War with the Nuremberg trials. Post-Cold War, particularly after the crimes in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, the emphasis shifted towards accountability for crimes.
I understand the underlying question: does dealing with crimes actually benefit society, or could it be counterproductive? Journalists often question whether international tribunals aid reconciliation. We sometimes hear arguments that judgments, whether convictions or acquittals, can polarize communities, stir emotions and potentially disrupt peace processes. However, I firmly believe that a society cannot heal from the wounds of war without accountability for serious international crimes. How can a society move towards a shared future while fundamental disagreements about the past and about responsibility for past crimes persist?
From my perspective, however, justice alone is insufficient for reconciliation. True reconciliation must originate within a society, involving both victims and perpetrators. Yet, accountability is an essential starting point, laying the groundwork for reconciliation efforts. I believe that this view is likely shared by many in my field.
Q: How do laws apply in conflict?
[Serge Brammertz]: Many national and international laws continue to apply during an armed conflict.
But one set of laws—international humanitarian law—is triggered by the existence of an armed conflict. International humanitarian law, or IHL, comprises the body of treaties and customary laws that place limits on how war is conducted. The most well-known IHL treaties are the four Geneva Conventions, which were established after the Second World War.
These Conventions apply to all parties to a conflict. They do not judge the righteousness of the reasons for going to war. They allow combatants to kill each other without suffering criminal consequences. However, all parties are required to respect certain rules, which aim to minimize the suffering of those who are vulnerable in conflict—like civilians and prisoners of war and former fighters who are injured or shipwrecked or have surrendered. IHL also safeguards civilian places, such as religious buildings, cultural monuments, schools, hospitals and homes. These places can be targeted only when they are put to military use.
However, the current situation in the world can only be described as chaotic, marked by an unprecedented number of conflicts and the highest ever number of refugees and internally displaced persons. This reality underscores the critical importance of adhering to the law during conflicts.
Q: What does it take to build robust peace?
[Serge Brammertz]: As a prosecutor, I recognize that our involvement typically begins when it’s already too late: when prevention, humanity, and common sense have failed. Violence, whether in families, communities, or at an international level, signifies a failure of humanity. The question of achieving lasting peace is complex, which is why the United Nations was established. Multilateralism plays a crucial role here, though larger countries often show less interest in it, while smaller nations tend to see its benefits more clearly.
As a Belgian, I grew up in one of the original countries of the European Union, I have witnessed the advantages of multilateralism throughout my life. Coming from the German-speaking part of Belgium, my family history includes both German and Belgian soldiers, highlighting the lose-lose nature of war, which only results in death and misery. Therefore, I believe in investing in multilateralism, seeking common ground rather than emphasizing differences.
However, the peace versus justice debate continues even after a conflict. The creation of the ad hoc tribunals for Yugoslavia and Rwanda relied on a shared understanding that justice would be a key component of any peace process. Yet, this belief remains fragile. Today’s world reveals a sad truth: impunity for international crimes is more common than prosecutions. Justice and accountability remain the exception rather than the rule.
Q: What is the impact of the glorification of war criminals, post conflict?
[Serge Brammertz]: Reflecting on my 15 years in this job, my initial optimism regarding reconciliation has been tainted with frustration.
Consider the case of General Mladić, the leader of the Bosnian Serb troops in the ethnic cleansing campaigns in Bosnia, where many thousands were killed, wounded, and displaced. He was in command during the years long siege of Sarajevo, where over 10,000 people, including many children, were killed by shelling and snipers. Images of Mladić in Srebrenica, distributing candy to children, before executing over 8000 men and boys, are still vivid. In the courtroom, we showed videos of his soldiers executing prisoners. Although he was convicted—not only of war crimes, but also crimes against humanity and genocide—and his life sentence was confirmed on appeal, he continues to be celebrated. In Belgrade, he is glorified in over 200 murals and revered as a war hero, a sentiment that is shared by many high-ranking politicians and other community leaders.
This misplaced hero worship extends to Croatian and Bosnian communities as well, with each side viewing their own as heroes and the others as criminals. Politicians relish having convicted war criminals at their rallies.
Politicians also often deny the genocide, a major problem that can be seen as the final phase of a genocide. Genocide denial destroys the memory of the group, an act both unacceptable and insulting to survivors.
This glorification hinders reconciliation and impacts the search for the missing. In the former Yugoslavia there are still over 10,000 missing persons. To conceal their crimes, Mladić and others moved the bodies of their victims from mass graves into smaller secondary graves. This has complicated the process of identification. In some cases, body parts belonging to the same individual were found miles apart. Those who know the locations of the remaining graves remain silent, not wanting to tarnish the ‘heroic’ image of their generals. This silence and glorification prevent crucial information about mass graves from emerging, demonstrating the profound and tragic impact of this hero worship on the process of finding and identifying the missing.
Q: What can we do to prevent conflict from escalating?
[Serge Brammertz]: Addressing the complexity of international intervention in conflicts, my thoughts often return to the two conflicts I was closely involved with.
In the former Yugoslavia, specifically Srebrenica, which was a UN-designated safe haven, the UN was tasked with protection. Ultimately, the peacekeepers were unable to prevent Serb forces, who outnumbered and outgunned them, from committing crimes.
A similar situation unfolded in Rwanda a year earlier. Despite numerous signs of an impending genocide, the international response was inadequate. When the conflict escalated, troops from France, Belgium, and other nations contributing to the UN peacekeeping forces quickly left the country or were otherwise unable to prevent the atrocities.
This highlights a sad reality: there is still considerable hesitancy within the international community for robust intervention. Ultimately, blue helmets, or UN peacekeepers, come from specific countries, and the decision to withdraw them rests with the capitals of these contributing countries. This ongoing issue underscores the challenges in international conflict resolution and peacekeeping efforts. There’s no simple answer to this dilemma.
But so long as leaders can initiate conflicts for personal or national gain, without facing consequences, there’s little to deter them from doing so. The international courts play a role here, in attaching consequences to crimes. The idea of general deterrence is that by punishing one person, you can send the message to others that there can be and will be a penalty.
Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?
[Serge Brammertz]: When I began my journey in international justice in 2003, I was an idealistic believer. As the deputy prosecutor at the ICC, I participated in ground-breaking cases like those against the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and the Lubanga case from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. We even received our first referral from the UN Security Council for the Sudan situation in Darfur, a notable achievement since many member countries were not part of the ICC. Back then, my idealism was at its peak.
Fast forward 15 years, my belief in justice remains; but it’s now tempered with realism and pragmatism. Gone is the ambition to change the world; instead, I focus on achievable, small successes, believing in the cumulative impact of these incremental steps.
Often, people ask me, after dealing with humanity’s darkest aspects for 30 years, do I still believe in humanity? Have I become cynical? I cannot simply say I enjoy my job, as people might misinterpret that. But truly, it’s a privilege to contribute meaningfully to society and justice. This is true for any profession where you can make a positive impact.
Reflecting on my experiences, many people and places stand out. I can still remember my first visit to Sarajevo, where I met with victims’ organizations from all sides of the conflict. The Mothers of Srebrenica left a lasting impression: despite their immense suffering and loss, their primary request was for the arrest of Karadzic and Mladic, the architects of the genocide. Their eventual arrest, Karadzic eight months later and Mladic three years after, validated our efforts, making all the challenges worthwhile.
Similarly, when I assumed responsibility for the Rwanda tribunal, no arrests had been made in the previous decade. Revamping the tracking team, we successfully arrested two important fugitives, Felicien Kabuga and Fulgence Kayishema. Visiting Nyange, the site of horrendous crimes, and meeting with survivors and victims was a profoundly moving experience. Their emotional reactions reinforced the relevance and impact of our work, even decades later.
In international criminal justice, sometimes we have to be patient. Justice might be delayed, but it’s not necessarily denied. It’s sometimes necessary to wait for the right moment to act against those in power. This perspective keeps me motivated, believing in the importance of our mission.