The Witnesses: War Crimes and the Promise of Justice in the Hague by Eric Stover. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005. 252 pp.

There is a burgeoning literature on global efforts to pursue international justice for war crimes and human rights abuses. Most of these studies focus on the various institutions that have been developed towards this end, perhaps most prominently war crimes tribunals and truth commissions. The voices of the elites designing or leading these institutions have often been prioritized, whereas scholars have brought in the voices of victims too infrequently. Eric Stover’s book, The Witnesses: War Crimes and the Promise of Justice in the Hague, is a corrective to this trend and refreshingly privileges the voices of victims in his study of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.

While completing research for another book on war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia, Stover was motivated to conduct this study after being confronted with the anger of several women from Srebenica when he asked what they thought of the war crimes tribunal. Stover had presumed that all victims would support trials as a way of bringing justice to perpetrators. Instead, he found that a substantial number of victims resented the court as “too little, too late” in some cases and as illegitimate in others. After being confronted by this disconnect between his presumption that victims would uniformly welcome trials and the reality of the mixed reactions of victims to the war crimes tribunal for Yugoslavia, Stover decided to conduct a study focused on the perspectives of victims.

As his primary methodology, Stover interviewed 127 people about their opinions and attitudes towards the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). The interviewees include Serbs, Bosnian Muslims, and Croats. Eighty-seven of the interviewees are witnesses who actually have testified before the ICTY. His analysis focuses mostly on information he garnered from the interviews of these witnesses. Other interviewees included seven potential witnesses who were not called to testify and thirty-three current or former members of the ICTY staff, journalists, and human rights workers who had worked with ICTY witnesses. Stover’s objectives in conducting extensive interviews of victims and witnesses are three-fold: 1) he wants to examine the reasons that witnesses choose to testify before international criminal tribunals; 2) he seeks to expand our understanding of the experiences of witnesses who testify; and 3) he considers the fate and concerns of witnesses after they testify. These are all important issues, and in gathering evidence about these issues from the case of the former Yugoslavia, Stover makes an important contribution to the literature on post-conflict justice.

His findings can be briefly summarized in the following manner. First, witnesses identified a variety of reasons for choosing to testify before the ICTY. Foremost among these reasons was a sense of “moral duty.” Surprisingly, perhaps, revenge was not a major motivation. Second, in terms of the experiences of witnesses who testified before the ICTY, Stover found that testifying could be a psychologically traumatizing experience and that victims were not sufficiently prepared for, or aided during the process, to deal with their own psychological needs. While a small percentage of Stover’s interviewees reported feeling a sense of catharsis from testimony, most felt emotionally drained and ambivalent about whether anything positive would result from their testimony, either for themselves or for the community more broadly. At the same time, few witnesses reported being overly traumatized by their experience. In addition to psychological effects, witnesses’ choice to testify often had negative social consequences, including threats and intimidation from members of different ethnic groups living in their communities, not only for themselves but also for friends and family back home. In this regard, Stover’s interviews indicate that fear of negative repercussions was a factor made many victims reluctant to testify. Finally, Stover’s interviews suggest that witnesses had mixed feelings about the aftermath of testifying before the ICTY. Respondents were more concerned about job security and their economic situation than about the punishment of war criminals or post-conflict justice.

Stover comes away from his interviews of victims of and witnesses to mass atrocity in Yugoslavia with a more nuanced perspective on the value of trials than he had when he began the study. He continues to acknowledge the potential ability of war crimes trials to bring some justice to victims by recognizing their suffering. Simultaneously, his interviews helped him to understand the anger and resentment that he confronted when he initially asked women from Srebenica what they thought about the ICTY. Trials cannot undo the immense suffering of victims, and testifying in trials can re-traumatize victims and lead them to face threats and hostility in ethnically-divided communities. In this way, Stover correctly cautions readers to be mindful of the potential tension between justice for perpetrators, justice at the community level, and justice for individual victims.

The Witnesses will be of interest to scholars of post-conflict justice and human rights as well as legal professionals and human rights activists who work with victims. The book is clearly written, jargon-free, and accessible.

Debra L. DeLaet, Drake University
November 2007


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