Screen readers: Two navigational links to follow.Skip to site navigation.Skip to page content.
The University of Iowa News Services
The University of Iowa News Services Home News Releases UI in the News Subscribe to UI News Contact Us

University of Iowa News Release


Nov. 3, 2009

UI law professor writes about atrocities, says Karadzic trial can continue

A war crimes expert in the University of Iowa College of Law says the trial of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic that started last week at the International Criminal Tribunal can continue, even if the defendant carries through on his threat to boycott the proceedings.

"He has many talented legal advisors who can prepare a defense in his absence, and so the trial can continue," said Mark Osiel, a University of Iowa law professor and author of the new book, "Making Sense of Mass Atrocity."

Karadzic is on trial facing 11 counts of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity stemming from the bloody Bosnian civil war between 1992 and 1995. The leader of Serbian separatists in the former Yugoslavian republic of Bosnia, he was allegedly behind the so-called ethnic cleansing that forced 2.2 million Bosnians from their homes and killed hundreds of thousands of Bosnian Muslims.

He was captured in 2008 and his trial started last week at the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands. He failed to appear at the first two days of the trial, however, saying he needs more time to prepare.

But Osiel said that since Karadzic is in custody and has been charged, the trial can continue without him. He said that while Karadzic is representing himself, he appears to be deferring to his sizeable team of legal advisors.

Osiel said the prosecution's case against Karadzic is strong, with wiretaps and documents detailing the ethnic cleansing strategy and his ethnic hatred of Bosnian Muslims. He said prosecutors are focusing their case on the two-year-long siege of Sarajevo and the mass killings at the town Srebrenica, when as many as 10,000 Bosnian Muslims were executed.

"The prosecutors are learning from past trials to focus on certain instances, instead of painting a broad brush and trying to show the whole story," said Osiel. As a result, he said many past cases were drawn out for years because of their size and complexity. For instance, former Yugoslavian and Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic managed to drag his case out for four years before he died without a verdict in 2006. Osiel said Karadzic's case is expected to take two to thee years.

A leading international expert on war crimes, Osiel recently completed a one-year term as director for International Criminal and Humanitarian Law at the T.M.C. Ascher Institute, a think tank associated with the University of Amsterdam in The Hague. His book, "Making Sense of Mass Atrocity," was published in October by Cambridge University Press.

In the book, Osiel explores mass killings in Darfur, Cambodia, South America and Germany during the Holocaust, as well as the former Yugoslavia. He argues that genocide, crimes against humanity, and the worst war crimes are possible only through coordinated efforts of states or large groups of people; therefore, responsibility for mass atrocity is always shared.

Osiel explores how to convict heads of state and military leaders for mass atrocities and demonstrates the problems that the criminal law faces in trying to pinpoint blame for mass atrocity when responsibility is widely shared among hundreds or thousands of people.

His work is especially relevant in the Karadzic case, as prosecutors seek to tie him to the Serbian action in Sarajevo and Srebrenica.

Karadzic's defense is that he received a grant of immunity from prosecution from Richard Holbrooke, the assistant U.S. Secretary of State who negotiated the Dayton Accords that ended the Balkan Wars in 1995. According to Karadzic, Holbrooke promised immunity if he stepped down as leader of the Bosnian Serbs.

Osiel doesn't think it will work.

"The burden of proof will be on Karadzic to prove this grant of immunity was made, but since there are no witnesses, and since Holbrooke didn't make a record of any grant, he will lose," Osiel said.

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010 (office), 319-541-8434 (cell),


STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa News Service, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 371, Iowa City, Iowa 52242-2500

MEDIA CONTACT: Tom Snee, 319-384-0010,