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The art of prosecuting war criminals: a talk with William Fenrick

written by Eleanor Davidson
November 14, 2014 4:53 pm

Dalhousie-trained lawyer speaks on the complications of international criminal prosecution

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Reflecting upon his time at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), William Fenrick likens the Tribunal’s process to mud wrestling.

A former officer in the Canadian Navy and a graduate of the Dalhousie Law School, Fenrick was part of a Commission of Experts advising the ICTY investigations into war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia.

Addressing a small audience at Dalhousie on Nov. 5, Fenrick spoke about his experience at the ICTY and the complexities of international law.

In the years since it was first established in 1993, the ICTY has charged over 160 people.

For a court that does not have the capacity to handle more than six cases at once, this was a significant (and ongoing) undertaking.

The ICTY prosecuted criminals involved in events from 1991 until the end of the Yugoslav wars in 1999.

“On the one hand, what we were trying to do was to get at higher-level people,” says Fenrick.

“But our first was a man named Duško Tadić, a low-level thug who murdered a bunch of people. He was our first case because we knew we could get him.”

Tadićwas convicted for crimes against humanity and convicted to 20 years imprisonment.

Of the dozens of criminals tried by the ICTY, each case provided its own challenges.

Fenrick’s allegory of the ICTY’s task as mud-wrestling became increasingly clear as he described the hurdles involved in finding the criminals, arresting them and trying them.

“It’s a difficult and hard-fought battle in every case,” he says.

While the task of dealing with war criminals provided endless challenges, Fenrick also described the complex nature of working in an international environment.

“Some of our judges were trained in common law, others in civil law. There are so many fundamental differences between the two that it could be very difficult to reach an understanding.”

Jeremy Ryant, a political science student who attended Fenrick’s talk, commented on the former lawyer.

“I was surprised. I knew international law was filled with complicated jurisdictions, but it became clear today just how messy this is, how many actors you have to deal with and compromise with.”