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Crimes against humanity

Vasva Smajlovic cries as she watches on television the genocide trial of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic

In March 2016, a man was found guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity and a number of breaches of the laws of war. His trial had lasted nearly eight years. Over 500 witnesses gave evidence.

How might it feel to be a witness giving evidence about horrific events? Use a moving photograph and facts about the court process to explore the principles and practice of war crimes trials.

Learning objectives

By the end of this activity young people will be able to:

  • Outline the work of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and explain why war crimes trials can last many years.
  • Describe some of the pressures on those who give evidence at trials of genocide and crimes against humanity, and identify some of the qualities and support they might need.
  • Consider the impact of crimes against humanity on those affected.

[Please note – some young people may find this subject upsetting. We recommend using this resource with older age groups.]

Photo activity

Last month a man was convicted by a court of very serious offences. His trial had lasted nearly eight years.

Show the photograph.

Vasva Smajlovic cries as she watches on television the genocide trial of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic

It was taken on 24 March 2016, the day that the court delivered a sentence of 40 years in prison.

Discuss the people in the photograph. Who do the group think they might be?

After discussion explain the situation:

The man on screen is Radovan Karadžić. He was president and supreme armed commander of the armed forces of the self-proclaimed Serb entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina called “Republika Srpska” in the 1990s. Bosnia and Herzegovina was one of the republics of the former Yugoslavia.

The woman in the foreground is Vasva Smajlovic. Her husband was killed in July 1995, along with thousands of other civilian men and boys, in Srebrenica, a town in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The picture was taken on the day that the judge pronounced sentence of 40 years’ imprisonment on Radovan Karadžić.

Vasva Smajlovic was watching the trial, along with journalists and her two sisters-in-law who had also lost husbands.

One of the women said her husband, two brothers, her father and four sons-in-law were killed at Srebrenica.

Reflective activity

Spend a few moments thinking about the sadness and loss.

  • What words might the group use to describe the emotion in that room?
  • Are there words to describe how the women might have felt over the past 21 years?
  • How might the past eight years, as evidence was being heard, have been different?

Genocide and crimes against humanity

The killings around Srebrenica occurred during the wars fought in the 1990s between armed groups in the former Yugoslavia.

In 2004 the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ruled that what happened in Srebrenica was genocide – an attempt to destroy a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.

As well as two counts of genocide, Radovan Karadžić was charged with other crimes:

Five counts of crimes against humanity:

  • Persecutions
  • Extermination
  • Murder
  • Deportation

Four counts of violations of the laws or customs of war.

  • Murder
  • Terror
  • Unlawful attacks on civilians
  • Taking of hostages

What do the group think is meant by crimes against humanity? Note that murder is in both lists. That’s because it can be a single violation of the laws of war, but if it is part of a widespread or systematic attack against a civilian population it could also be a crime against humanity.

Understanding the trial process

Radovan Karadžić was arrested in July 2008. In March 2016, he was found guilty of ten out of the 11 charges he faced, including genocide, and was sentenced to 40 years imprisonment.

Discuss why the trial took so long. Encourage young people to consider the following two opposing views:

Opinion 1:

I don’t see why the trial took so long. Everyone knows he was guilty of terrible crimes. He himself knew, that’s why he went into hiding after the war.

They should have charged him with just one or two crimes to keep the process short. And then locked him up for ever. Or just executed him.

He didn’t allow any sort of justice for the people he killed. Why should he have the luxury of a proper trial and defence?

Opinion 2:

You don’t know if someone is guilty until you have heard the evidence.

And hearing evidence isn’t just about establishing guilt. It’s also about recognising what happened to people.

Victims and survivors need to know that their voices have been heard as part of the justice process.

Also, many people refuse to believe in the guilt of someone on their side in a conflict. As personal memories fade, the official record is all that’s left.

And yes, criminals mistreat their victims. But if the authorities did the same, that makes them just as bad. 

Which view do young people have most sympathy with? Which particular point is most persuasive for them?

Young people could divide into small groups, take on one side of the argument each then present back the key points from their discussions to the larger group.

The qualities of being a witness

In total, 586 witnesses testified or provided written statements to the trial.

Think about those hundreds of witnesses. Try to define what qualities they would need in order to:

  • leave their home and travel to the Hague, Netherlands where the tribunal is based
  • enter an unfamiliar world of strict legal procedures, in different languages
  • speak about very distressing, horrific events and personal loss
  • risk being disbelieved and openly challenged by the defence
  • deal with any anxieties about possible consequences when they got home.

Discussion questions

Encourage young people to discuss what it might feel like to be a witness. They could draw on their understanding of different trial processes perhaps gained through reading the news, watching television or other experiences.

  • What help and support might someone giving evidence in a trial appreciate from their family, friends and those around them?
  • Try to say in your own words why witnesses might think that it is worth testifying.
  • What would you say to someone who was considering giving evidence in a trial but who wasn’t sure?

Exploring the laws of war

Think again about the photograph. According to a journalist’s report, the women in that room were not satisfied by the result of the tribunal. They still grieve for their loss, and think that the sentence was too light.

Does that mean that the justice process has failed? Can there still be value, even though some victims do not feel there has been justice?

As a research project, invite the group to research different attitudes to the laws of war and the criminal justice system.

They need to be aware that war crimes can be tried within a country’s own justice system. A permanent court, the International Criminal Court, was also set up, after the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia began its work.

Among its aims are to ensure "that no ruler, no State, no junta and no army anywhere can abuse human rights with impunity". Help young people to explore what this means.

How far has it succeeded?

Concluding questions

  • Why is it important to have laws governing what is and isn’t legal during war or armed conflict?
  • Who and what do the laws of war apply to?
  • Who or what do they protect? 
  • How important are the laws of war, justice, and fairness for those affected by armed conflict?

Supporting resources


This resource was written by PJ White of Alt62 and published in April 2016.