Tim Resch’s Life-Changing Assignment
An employment law attorney crosses the globe to tackle injustice
Published in 2010 Oregon Rising Stars magazine on November 11, 2010
Cigarette smoke billowed from behind the door of the Bosnian courthouse conference room as Tim Resch waited to meet with the chief judge. Inside, he and his colleagues were offered the customary “slivovitz” (plum brandy) and vodka by the judge. “I politely decline,” Resch says. “It was 8 a.m., and I can’t work that way.” An assistant entered. “Her hands were shaking,” says Resch, “because here we were—the International Tribunal—rooting around in their documents.”
It was 2002, and Resch was part of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, established by the United Nations. It was the first international war crimes tribunal held since Nuremberg. Resch had been a lawyer for only four years, two of them behind a desk at The Hague in the tribunal’s Office of the Prosecutor. He was committed for four years. His mission that day: Find out if local judges were involved in ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serbs against Muslims and Croats during the early 1990s.
When he applied for the job, he was working in employment litigation at Samuels Yoelin Kantor Seymour & Spinrad in Portland. But when he heard the tribunal was hiring junior lawyers, it sounded like a thrilling opportunity. Never mind that he had little trial experience.
“I was open-minded, but I don’t know that I was prepared,” says Resch, 40. “I went from a practice where I was involved in some civil trial work and arguing motions—things that a second-year lawyer does—to sitting in an office looking at documents on a computer screen for hours and hours. The subject matter was just light-years away from anything I ever thought I’d be working on.”
Resch was assigned to three cases. His most prominent defendant was Momcilo Krajisnik, right-hand man to Radovan Karadzic, former president of the Bosnian Serb republic. Resch gathered evidence through witness statements, political speeches and tapped phone calls. “The typical story was the Bosnian Serb armed forces marched into a village and rounded up all the military-age men,” says Resch. “Some of them were killed and some were put in facilities. The women and children were expelled.”
The documents they gathered identified witnesses who said some judges were persuaded by politicians to give Serb soldiers immunity for their crimes—bolstering the cases against the politicians.
Krajisnik was convicted of crimes against humanity, later acquitted of some, and ended with a 20-year sentence.
Resch returned home to the very different world of his employment practice. But within four years, Karadzic was captured in Belgrade. Resch agreed to go back, but only for six months, having recently become partner and having a newborn at home.
Through his pretrial work, Resch watched Karadzic’s trial proceedings via closed-circuit TV. “He’s not typical of a bombastic politician,” says Resch. “He was representing himself and, frankly, he wasn’t doing a bad job. He kind of had that trademark bouffant hairdo—still does.” Resch came home before the trial, which is still unfolding.
The deepest emotional imprint on Resch during his time with the tribunal came from a woman’s testimony about 200 people who were murdered at the edge of a cliff.
“During the sentencing hearing, she played a video of the memorial service at the cliff,” says Resch, who led her testimony at one of the trials. “I got a little choked up. These people hadn’t done anything other than be of the ‘wrong’ ethnicity.”
In answer to a question by Resch about the day of the service, the witness said, “It rained heavily. And there was silence on the bus. People were saying that the rain represented the tears, tears we were shedding because of our dearest ones who had perished [that] day.”
“Looking back,” he says. “I really underestimated the life-changing nature of that decision.”