Ever since the war in Bosnia, the phenomenon of international tribunals to prosecute war crimes and crimes against humanity has been growing. The creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993 has been followed by the creation of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda; the Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia; the Special Court for Sierra Leone; and, above all, the International Criminal Court. The last of these has gained particular prominence with its indictment this summer of Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Yet for all the significance of its role as pioneer of international justice, the ICTY has been plagued with controversy since its creation and has been heavily criticised over its performance, not only by its opponents but also by its supporters. Most spectacularly, one of its most vocal champions, Florence Hartmann, former spokeswoman for Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte, has herself been indicted by the tribunal for contempt of court, for allegedly revealing classified information; Hartmann was trying to expose the ICTY’s internal politics and machinations that have compromised its pursuit of justice, above all in the case against Slobodan Milosevic. The Hartmann indictment symbolises the way in which this institution, through its failings, has now become the target of the very people who once believed in it most strongly.
To explain the failings of the ICTY it is worth comparing it with the tribunals that conducted the Nuremberg trials of Nazi war-criminals after World War II, in particular with the International Military Tribunal (IMT), that tried twenty-one of the most senior Nazi German leaders. The difference in aim and organisation between the IMT on the one hand and the ICTY on the other go a long way to explaining the difference in results.
The Nuremberg trials have been condemned by critics as a case of ‘victors’ justice’. Yet in fact, they represented the moderate option for the Allied powers, that had been victims of Nazi aggression or assault and that were determined that the German leaders be punished. Britain’s Winston Churchill and the US’s Franklin D. Roosevelt both initially favoured the idea of summarily executing hundreds or even thousands of leading Germans without trial, something to which the Allied publics would not have been averse. Yet in the end, it was the proposal of the US secretary of war, Henry Stimson, that the Nazi leaders be given fair trials, that was adopted. Thus, the Nuremberg trials were a case of victors’ justice rather than of victors’ injustice. Indeed, the contrasting experiences of the Nuremberg trials and of the ICTY suggest that victors’ justice may be the only effective kind.
The Nuremberg trials were organised and carried out by Allied powers that had absolutely no intention of allowing the German leadership to go unpunished. The trials followed on from a war of unparalleled brutality in which the Allied armies, despite enormous losses, had totally crushed and occupied Nazi Germany. There was therefore no problem, as was the case with other such trials before and since, of risking Allied soldiers’ lives to apprehend war-criminals; the sacrifice had already been made to defeat the Nazis, and the Allies were in a position to arrest war-criminals without incurring further losses of troops. Nor was there any question, of course, about trying Allied leaders for any war-crimes they might have committed against German or other civilians; the Nuremberg trials proceeded from the premise that Germany had begun the war and that it was wholly to blame for it, and this would determine which side would do the prosecuting and which side’s leaders would be tried. The trials were about punishing the aggressor, not about justice for all, and certainly had nothing to do with the idea of ‘reconciliation’. The entire weight of political pressure pushed the Allies toward harshness, not toward leniency.
The rights and wrongs of the war, rather than the crimes committed in the course of the war, were foremost in the minds of the Allied leaderships that established the IMT; German leaders were tried for conspiracy to commit crime against peace and for planning, initiating and waging a war of aggression, with crimes against humanity – including even the Holocaust – receiving secondary prominence. The IMT has been described as being a ‘multinational tribunal’ rather than an ‘international tribunal’: it was organised by the Allied powers directly, rather than by an international body such as the UN; the Allies had ‘done together what any one of them might have done singly’. The IMT pursued and tried the leading war criminals, including such senior figures as Hitler’s successor as Fuehrer, Karl Doenitz; Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick; air-force chief Hermann Goering; former deputy Fuehrer Rudolf Hess; High Command Chief of Operations Alfred Jodl; Chief of Staff Wilhelm Keitel; Commander-in-Chief of the Navy Erich Raeder; and Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. It was these big fish whom the Allied leaders had considered shooting without trial, and who were then the focus of the IMT, while lower-ranking offenders were dealt with subsequently by national tribunals organised by the Americans, Germans, Poles and others. Of the twenty-one prisoners sentenced by the IMT, eighteen were convicted of which eleven were sentenced to death, while the rest received sentences ranging from ten years to life.
The ICTY was different from the Nuremberg tribunals on almost every count. It did not follow a victorious war and was not imposed by the victims upon the vanquished, nor was it driven by massive pressure from the public and political classes for harsh action. On the contrary, the ICTY was conceived as a substitute for genuine action against the Serbian organisers of the war. The first steps leading to the establishment of the tribunal were taken by the outgoing administration of George Bush Snr in 1992, an administration which otherwise had taken virtually no action to halt Serbia’s aggression or punish its leaders. The ICTY was a sop to that section of political opinion in the West – at the time still the minority opinion – that was genuinely outraged by what was happening in Bosnia and demanded action. The ICTY was established by a UN Security Council resolution in 1993, while Western appeasement of Serbia was at its height, and should rightly be viewed as a fig-leaf concealing the sheer extent of this appeasement. It was only in the late summer of 1995 that Bill Clinton’s US administration was pushed, kicking and screaming, by Congressional opposition into taking serious military action against Bosnian Serb forces; even so, the peace imposed by the Clinton Administration on Bosnia, in the form of the Dayton Accord, snatched a Serb victory from the jaws of defeat, halting a victorious Croatian and Bosnian military advance and awarding 49% of Bosnia to the Serb rebels.
Instrumental in collaborating with Clinton’s envoy Richard Holbrooke to impose peace on the Bosnians was the principal architect of the war himself: Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. Milosevic was ready to sign the Dayton Accord, despite the fact that it pledged all the Bosnian authorities, including the Bosnian Serbs, to cooperate with the ICTY. At this stage, the tribunal had indicted the Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic – Milosevic’s rebellions proxies, who had defied him during the war – but not any senior official of Serbia itself. Like Milosevic, Clinton and Holbrooke were ready to sacrifice Karadzic and Mladic, but they continued to view Miloševiæ himself as a necessary collaborator and pillar of the peace.
We can imagine what the Nuremberg trials would have looked like if they had followed on from a war that ended with the Nazis being awarded 49% of Poland, and from a peace agreement between the Allies and Hitler in which Hitler was looked upon as a crucial partner. An IMT organised in these conditions, naturally, would not have tried and executed Hitler’s interior minister, foreign minister and chief of staff. So it was with the ICTY, which was the product of concession, compromise and collaboration, not of victory and the desire for retribution. The ICTY was not imposed by the victims over the vanquished, but by outside powers over the victims and aggressors alike. It made no presumption as to the rights or the wrongs of the war as a whole, indeed it was not authorised to try crimes against the peace or of aggression. Rather, it was mandated to try only individual war-criminals from all sides. Even on this limited basis, it was really only the US, of the major Western powers most involved in the war, that showed any interest in the project; the tribunal suffered, in its early years, from the almost complete lack of support, even obstruction, from Britain and France.
The IMT had been set up by the Allied powers themselves; it proceeded briskly and efficiently, with the executions carried out a mere year after the trials had begun, and a year and a half after the war ended. By contrast, the ICTY was a body of the UN – an organisation with which inefficiency, bureaucratism, corruption and nepotism are synonymous. Fifteen years after the tribunal’s establishment, and thirteen years after the war’s end, the trials are still plodding along; some have not yet even begun. Milosevic’s trial lasted four years and ended, incomplete, with his death in custody by natural causes. This has had the inevitable effect of reducing public interest in the trials, above all in the world outside the former Yugoslavia. The powerful body of Western, above all US public opinion that, outraged by what was happening in Bosnia, provided the decisive catalyst for the tribunal’s emergence, has largely faded away over the years; what has remained has been a tribunal bureaucracy subject to its own momentum. As an autonomous body in world affairs, it has not enjoyed the support that the IMT received from the victorious allies; as Hartmann recounts in her published memoirs, Chief Prosecutor Carla del Ponte had to struggle for attention and support from the Western powers.
With no driving idea of which side was to blame, which of its leaders had orchestrated the mass murder and who should therefore be punished, the ICTY prosecution has proceeded to indict individual suspects on a piecemeal, haphazard basis, beginning with small-fry like the concentration camp guard Dusan Tadic, and largely leaving the top leadership of Serbia untouched. Although the Office of the Prosecutor entered a more ambitious phase in 1999, during the Kosovo War, when Milosevic, as President of Yugoslavia, was indicted along with the Serbian president, Yugoslav deputy prime-minister, Serbian interior minister and Yugoslav chief-of-staff, for war-crimes against Kosovo Albanians, this proved the exception rather than the rule. Not only has the ICTY had no mandate to try crimes of aggression, but the prosecutions have overwhelmingly been for crimes carried out by the perpetrators within their own state, rather than against the inhabitants of neighbouring states. Thus, the aforementioned top Serbian leaders were indicted for war-crimes against the Albanian inhabitants of Kosovo, then a Serbian province. Bosnians have been indicted for crimes against other Bosnians; Croatians for crimes against Croatian Serbs and vice versa. But very few officials from Serbia have been indicted for war-crimes against the people of the neighbouring republics of Croatia and Bosnia.
Thus, over Bosnia, where the greatest part of the mass killing occurred – organised, initiated and executed by the Miloševiæ regime in conjunction with the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) – only six officials from Serbia were ever indicted: Slobodan Milosevic, Zeljko Raznatovic-Arkan, Jovica Stanisic, Franko Simatovic, Vojislav Seselj and Momcilo Perisic. Other than Milosevic himself, they were all officials of secondary importance or lower at the time the crimes were committed. The most senior of these was probably Stanisic, who was Serbian interior minister during the Bosnian war, while Perisic became Yugoslav chief of staff only in 1993, after the crimes directly executed by Serbia in Bosnia had already been carried out and Serbia’s direct participation in the war in Bosnia ended. None of the six has yet been convicted. With Milosevic and Arkan dead, the maximum number of officials from Serbia who might be convicted of war-crimes against Bosnians is four. In addition to these, a further seven officers of the JNA, all relatively minor figures, were indicted for war-crimes in Croatia, only one of whom has received a sentence of more than a few years. The total number of officials from Serbia who have been indicted, at twenty-one, is smaller than the number of indicted Bosnian Croats, at twenty-six. The number of officials from Serbia indicted for war-crimes in Bosnia, at six, is smaller than the number of indicted Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina officials, at ten.
The most senior officials of Serbia, Montenegro and the JNA who planned and carried out the aggression against Croatia and Bosnia were, however, never indicted. They include Yugoslav Presidency members for Serbia and Montenegro, Borisav Jovic, Jugoslav Kostic and Branko Kostic; the most senior JNA officers, Yugoslav defence secretary Veljko Kadijevic and Chief of Staff Blagoje Adzic; their deputies Stane Brovet and Zivota Panic; Montenegrin president Momir Bulatovic; and JNA intelligence chief Aleksandar Vasiljevic. Four of these – Jovic, Branko Kostic, Kadijevic and Adzic – escaped indictment despite having been named as members of the ‘Joint Criminal Enterprise’ in Milosevic’s indictment for war-crimes in Bosnia and Croatia. By any standards, Serbia has got off extremely lightly – virtually unpunished – for the wars in Croatia and, in particular, Bosnia.
The indictments policy of the ICTY prosecution requires some explaining. At Nuremberg, the Allies knew who was guilty, wanted to get them and set out to do so. By contrast, the ICTY was set up more for the sake of appearances than for the sake of results, and the choice of indictees was made by prosecutors according to their own agendas, which had little to do with actually punishing those principally responsible for the war. One of the factors that influenced the prosecutors’ policies was the fact that Serbia, unlike Germany, was a defeated but not a crushed and occupied country. The Hague prosecutors could not simply rely on occupation forces to arrest suspects and seize documents, but had to negotiate their handover with the Serbian authorities themselves. The latter have, of course, not only been far from forthcoming – to the point where Serbia was convicted last year by the International Court of Justice (ICJ) of failure to punish genocide – but have repeatedly accused the tribunal of anti-Serb bias. Meanwhile, the Western powers have been uneven in their readiness to apply pressure on Serbia to surrender suspects and documents. Even with regard to ‘Republika Srpska’, where there were international troops on the ground, the Western powers have been wary about offending the Bosnian Serb leaders or risking the lives of their troops to apprehend war-crimes suspects. They may even have entered into secret arrangements that allowed leading war-criminals, such as Radovan Karadzic, to evade capture for many years.
The need to negotiate and compromise with the Serbian authorities, and to counter accusations of ‘anti-Serb bias’, appears to have politicised and skewed the prosecution’s indictments policy. Contrary to myth, in terms of numbers indicted, Serb war-crimes suspects have been under-represented in proportion to their share of the crimes. By any reckoning, Serb forces were responsible for well over 80% of the civilian casualties in the wars of the former Yugoslavia combined, and non-Serb forces (Croatian, Bosnian/Muslim, Kosovo Albanian, Macedonian and NATO) for less than 20%. Yet of 159 indictees, only 108 or 68% were Serb officials (including non-Serbs who fought on the Serb side, like Drazen Erdemovic and Franko Simatovic) and 51 or 32% were Croatian, Bosnian, Kosovo Albanian or Macedonian officials. The percentage reflects not the respective proportions of killing carried out by Serbs and by non-Serbs, but the respective resources devoted by the prosecution to investigating Serb crimes and non-Serb crimes. Thus, when I was working as a Research Officer at the Office of the Prosecutor in 2001, out of eleven investigative teams, only seven – less than two-thirds – were devoted to investigating Serb war-crimes, and four to investigating non-Serb war-crimes.
Thus, the ICTY prosecutors distributed their human resources so as to guarantee that Serb war-criminals – responsible for over four-fifths of the killing of civilians – would comprise only two-thirds of indictees. And of the 108 Serb indictees, only 21 were from Serbia itself; the remainder were mostly Bosnian Serbs (83) and a few Croatian Serbs (4). Even with regard to the Serb share of indictments, Serbia itself has been largely spared while its local collaborators in the countries it attacked – above all Bosnians – have borne the brunt. And while the top Serbian/JNA commanders who planned and executed the Serbian aggression against Bosnia and Croatia have escaped indictment, the top Croatian and Bosnian commanders who led the defence of their countries – Janko Bobetko, Sefer Halilovic and Rasim Delic – have been indicted for crimes much smaller in scale, or for which they were not directly responsible. Thus, Kadijevic and Adzic escaped indictment for Vukovar or for what happened in Bosnia up to 19 May 1992, which was when the Yugoslav Army officially withdrew from Bosnia. But Bobetko was indicted over Croatian Army crimes committed at the Medak pocket in 1993, and Delic for crimes carried out by the foreign mujahedin.
It is not only over indictments policy, but also over evidence collection, that the ICTY has allowed political or tactical considerations to sway its pursuit of justice. Serbia was required to submit to the ICTY judges in the Milosevic case the minutes of the Supreme Defence Council of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia – the body made up of the presidents of Serbia, Montenegro and Yugoslavia – i.e. of Milosevic and two of his allies. This body initially had command over all Bosnian Serb forces, up until 19 May 1992, and subsequently remained in command of the Yugoslav Army up to and after the time of the Srebrenica massacre, during which it collaborated with the Bosnian Serb forces. The judges at the ICTY, however, allowed Serbia to withhold certain passages from this set of documents in the version seen by the public and by the ICJ. Bosnia could not therefore use these crucial documents for its case against Serbia for genocide at the ICJ. This, combined with the ICJ’s own concessions to Serbia, helped ensure Serbia’s acquittal. Phon van den Biesen, a member of the Bosnian team, has gone on record to say that the full documents would probably have demonstrated that the Bosnian Serb forces were under Serbia’s control during the Srebrenica massacre, which has been legally established to have been an act of genocide by both the ICTY and the ICJ.
This brings us on to the crime of genocide, which has assumed much greater international prominence as a result of the events in Bosnia and Rwanda in the 1990s. With its successful prosecution of the Bosnian Serb officer Radislav Krstic for genocide at Srebrenica, the ICTY is the first of three international courts to determine that Serb forces were guilty of genocide in Bosnia; it has been followed by the ICJ and by the European Court of Human Rights. In this respect, the ICTY has gone further than the Nuremberg trials went, for although the IMT indictment accused the German leaders of ‘deliberate and systematic genocide’, it did not charge them with this crime, as the term ‘genocide’ had then only recently been coined, and the concept was only beginning to gain credence. Thus, the German leaders were charged merely with ‘crimes against humanity’, though it is for the genocide of the Jews, of all their crimes, that they are principally remembered.
Yet despite its importance in determining that genocide occurred in Bosnia, the ICTY has proved, in this regard as in others, to have been a toothless tribunal. It has successfully prosecuted only one individual, the lowly deputy corps commander Krstic, for a genocide-related offence. A second Bosnian Serb officer, Vidoje Blagojevic, was convicted of genocide but subsequently acquitted on appeal of all genocide-related charges, while Momcilo Krajisnik, a member of the Republika Srpska presidency, was acquitted of genocide straight out. Thus, the ICTY has established the occurrence of a genocide for which almost nobody – and nobody senior – has yet been found guilty. The ICTY is not, of course, solely to blame for these meagre results: the international community has so far failed to pressurise Serbia into handing over Ratko Mladic, suspected as the mastermind behind the Srebrenica massacre, to the tribunal.
One final difference separates the IMT from the ICTY: the issue of ‘reconciliation’. The UN Security Council resolution establishing the tribunal justified it as something that would ‘contribute to the restoration and maintenance of peace’, and its supporters frequently argue that prosecution of individual war-criminals is necessary in order to free the respective former-Yugoslav peoples of the stigma of collective guilt, thereby facilitating reconciliation between them. Paradoxically, however, it was the more overtly retributive IMT and subsequent Nuremberg tribunals, by determining in advance that one side was guilty and efficiently punishing its top surviving leaders, that appear to have been more effective in achieving reconciliation between Germany and the nations it attacked. For Germany has not been allowed to escape condemnation as the side guilty for the war, while those it attacked have witnessed that justice has been done.
By contrast, there is no evidence to suggest that the ICTY – with no prior allocation of guilt to one side in the war, by treating war-crimes on a purely individual basis, and by lumping together war-criminals from all sides – has made any contribution to reconciliation between the former Yugoslavs. On the contrary. Unlike after World War II, the international community has failed to impose a narrative of who was to blame for the War of Yugoslav Succession, and to force each side to accept it. Consequently, each side continues to see itself as the victim in the conflict, and to see the tribunal’s record purely in terms of how too many of its own people and/or too few of the other sides’ have been indicted, or how the other sides’ indictees have been wrongfully acquitted or received too short sentences. According to a recent study by an international team of scholars led by Vojin Dimitrijevic and Julie Mertus: ‘The hope that it [the ICTY] might promote reconciliation between the peoples of the region does not appear to have been realised.’
There is a lesson to be learned from the respective experiences of the IMT and ICTY: so far as war-crimes are concerned, there can be no real justice without the real defeat of the perpetrators.
Harold Pinter, the British playwright and Nobel Laureate, has died. At this time of loss, it is worth remembering with what empathy and compassion Pinter responded to the loss and suffering of others. And how did Pinter respond to the tens of thousands of dead in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s; to the tens of thousands of women and children raped or forced into prostitution; to the Sarajevans left without limbs as a result of mortar fire; to the pain and bereavement suffered by the widows and orphans of Vukovar, Srebrenica and Racak; to the hundreds of thousands forced into miserable lives as refugees ? By joining the ‘International Committee to Defend Slobodan Milosevic’ (ICDSM), that’s how.
For Pinter, it wasn’t enough that the people of the former Yugoslavia should suffer such loss; he wanted to deprive them of justice as well. On the ICDSM’s website, Pinter’s name appears eighth on the list of signatories to its petition, which demanded that ‘the Serbian authorities immediately release Slobodan Milosevic and all other Serbian patriots from jail.’ It went on: ‘We demand that neither Slobodan Milosevic, nor any other Yugoslav, be sent to the Hague Tribunal. We demand an end to the arbitrary kidnapping, arrest, harassment and persecution of Yugoslav leaders and soldiers and ordinary people whose crime was to set an example to the world by resisting NATO aggression. Free Slobodan Milosevic at once! End persecution of Mr. Milosevic and all Yugoslav patriots and soldiers at once!’
Lest it be forgotten, the Hague tribunal was established by a resolution of the UN Security Council. But in Pinter’s words: ‘ I regard this particular court as illegitimate and, in fact, with no proper international substance. I regard it as an American-inspired court, really. I mean, [former US secretary of state] Madeleine Albright kicked the whole thing off, so I think it’s a really partial court and has no proper legal foundation or substance.’
This is noteworthy, as Pinter also regarded the US invasion of Iraq as ‘demonstrating absolute contempt for the concept of international law’, as he said in his Nobel lecture. And he accused NATO of ‘ignoring the UN’ by intervening in Kosova without its authorisation. Yet he had no qualms about himself calling upon Serbia to disregard the UN’s own war-crimes tribunal, in order to defend a mass-murdering former dictator from facing justice.
Nor was Pinter satisfied with attempting to deny justice to the victims of genocide and ethnic cleansing; he wanted to minimise their suffering as well. In his words: ‘When I say propaganda, there is an enormous amount of propaganda about Milosevic. We were told initially that he was responsible for the deaths of 100,000 people. That of course has never been proved, and is obviously not the case.’ But, of course, it was the case, and has been proved. When Pinter joined the ICDSM, The Guardian reported: ‘Although he believes that Mr Milosevic was “ruthless and savage”, he has long argued that he has been unfairly demonised as the “butcher of the Balkans”. He blames his former vice-president, the ultra-nationalist Vojislav Seselj – for much of the ethnic cleansing.’ A line of argument reminiscent of the Holcaust revisionist David Irving, who claimed that Himmler planned and carried out the Holocaust without Hitler’s knowledge.
Of course, apologists for Pinter will try to deflect criticism of his support for Milosevic by saying ‘Whatabout Tudjman ?’ But the fact is that nobody – NOBODY- on the British left did anything even remotely as shameful as setting up or joining an ‘International Committee to Defend Franjo Tudjman’. Those of us who supported the prosecution of Milosevic by the Hague tribunal also support the prosecution of Tudjman’s Croatian generals who have been indicted by the same body. Opposition to the Hague tribunal is something that united Milosevic supporters like Pinter with the Croatian-nationalist supporters of Tudjman. Readers may wish to contrast what I have written about Tudjman, or what my mother, Branka Magas, wrote about him, with Pinter’s defence of Milosevic.
So all in all, I am roughly as sad about Pinter’s death as Pinter was sad about the deaths of the tens of thousands killed by Milosevic or for the hundreds of thousands whose lives were ruined by him. Of course, it might be argued that, however obnoxious his politics or his actions were, Pinter deserves credit for being a great playwright. But I’ll never know if this argument is valid or not. I have never read or seen any of Pinter’s plays. And I never shall.
If there has been one cause that has long inspired me above all others, it is the cause of small nations struggling to free themselves from oppression or domination by larger ones. Even before the outbreak of war in the former Yugoslavia made me interested in the politics and history of that region, when I was in still in school, I was greatly moved by the history of the Irish struggle for freedom and independence from Britain. I have long felt that the cause of freedom for oppressed nations has not figured as prominently as it should in progressive political thinking, and have always found national-chauvinistic ideologies that justify the suppression or forced assimilation of subject peoples to be uniquely horrifying. In the most extreme cases, such ideologies underpin acts of genocide – the most extreme form that national oppression can take. And for myself and kindred political spirits, genocide is the greatest evil humanity has produced.
Progressive thinking has, likewise, traditionally paid insufficient attention to the phenomenon of genocide. The inability of the Left to respond adequately to genocide was made abundantly clear by the events in the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda in the 1990s. For some of us, this deficiency has been a catalyst to our disenchantment with left-wing politics in their traditional form. Not just because genocide-prevention has usually been assigned a lower priority than ‘class’, ‘anti-war’ or ‘anti-imperialist’ causes, but because it presupposes outside intervention, something to which a large proportion of ‘progressive’ opinion has traditionally been averse.
Yet for all this, an unprecedentedly large number of nations have achieved national independence since the early 1990s, and the cause of genocide-prevention has entered the progressive consciousness in a way it never did before. In the spirit of the Christmas season, I’d like to highlight recent developments in these fields that should give us cause for optimism; developments that I really should have written about more fully and promptly, if only one had unlimited time as a blogger…
1) While the youth of Greece is still battling on the streets for its social and economic emancipation, a quieter, but perhaps ultimately more significant movement for progressive change is taking place in neighbouring Turkey. More than 22,000 Turkish citizens have signed the following apology: ‘My conscience does not accept the insensitivity showed to and the denial of the Great Catastrophe that the Ottoman Armenians were subjected to in 1915. I reject this injustice and for my share, I empathize with the feelings and pain of my Armenian brothers and sisters. I apologize to them.’
To apologise for the Armenian genocide should be, for Turkey, a matter of national honour. But it is also a matter of self-interest for any Turkish citizen who wants to live in a democracy. In Turkey, as in Serbia, Croatia, Greece and other South East European countries, national-chauvinist ideology is the single biggest enemy of democracy; the taunt of ‘traitor’ is used to silence dissent, while minority rights are trampled over in the name of the ‘nation’. Yet in the words of Cengiz Aktar, professor of EU studies at Istanbul’s university of Bahcesehir and one of the principal organisers of the Turkish campaign to apologise: ‘From now, anyone who speaks about the Armenian question will have to take into account this expression of consciousness. It’s a new element in the debate.’ Readers of this blog will be aware that I do not support the campaign for the US or UK officially to recognise the Armenian genocide, or any other historic genocide that has taken place in a foreign country, for reasons that I have explained in detail. The organisers of the campaign in Turkey likewise appear ambivalent about such campaigns in the US and elsewhere. It is only through a democratic campaign in Turkey itself that the country can gradually come to recognise what happened to the Armenians.
2) While progressive Turks are striking a blow against genocide ‘from below’, a blow has been struck ‘from above’, with the conviction and jailing for life of Theoneste Bagosora, the mastermind of the Rwandan genocide, and two of his collaborators by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Described by prosecutors as ‘enemies of the human race’, they were found guilty of genocide, crimes against humanity and war-crimes. The record of the war-crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia has been less than perfect, but in this instance, at least, justice has been done.
3) A new genetic study apparently proves that twenty per cent of the population of the Iberian peninsula has Sephardic Jewish ancestry, and ten per cent has Moorish ancestry. Another study proves not only that the ethnic origins of the Balkan nations are extremely mixed – which everyone knows, of course - but that the populations of Greece and Albania are genetically more Slavic in origin than the Slavic-speaking populations of neighbouring Macedonia and Bulgaria. Scientists have already proven the genetic kinship of Jews and Arabs.
The myth that ethnic differences are based on genetic differences remains surprisingly pervasive, not just among nationalists – of whom we expect no better – but among ‘educated’ opinion in general. Ethnic differences or identities that are disapproved of are frequently counterposed to ‘real’ ones in discussions about civil wars and other conflicts. Just as nationalists like to imagine their own group has been ethnically pure since Antiquity or earlier, so leftists are frequently fond of portraying ethnic differences as having been ‘invented by imperialism’, or some such nonsense. Yes, the modern nations of the world are largely the products of imperialism, colonialism and genocide, and many ethnic identities have been deliberately fostered by imperial overlords or other interested parties. So what ? All ethnicities are ultimately human constructs, with little or nothing to do with genetic differences. They are only as ‘real’ as their members or their persecutors feel them to be. The more that scientific studies undermine the disgusting, racist myth of ‘real’ ethnic differences, the better for human enlightenment and emancipation.
4) Kalaallit Nunaat, or Greenland, voted last month to increase its autonomy from Denmark, in what may be a step toward full independence. The Greenlandic independence movement is fuelled both by economic factors and by simple national feeling on the part of the predominantly Inuit population. I am fascinated by the Nordic world, not least because it has proven adept at managing the transition to independence of its constituent nations in a peaceful and civilised manner. It is up to the people of Greenland alone to decide whether they want to secede from Denmark, of course; nobody else can or should exercise a veto over this process. But should they choose to, the peaceful acceptance of their decision that Denmark will undoubtedly demonstrate should serve as a model for states all over the world, from Spain to India.
On this note, I wish readers a very merry Christmas and happy New Year.
The uprising that is taking place in Greece should serve as a verdict on the corrupt and aggressive government of Costas Karamanlis and New Democracy. Rioting and violence are to be deplored, but they are symptoms of the deep malaise from which Greece is suffering. They should not be allowed to obscure the legitimacy of the Greek popular struggle that has broken out against poverty, corruption and police brutality. While I condemn all acts of violence and vandalism, I should like to express my complete solidarity with the youth, workers and other citizens of Greece who are protesting and striking peacefully. Democracy means that the government and state can be held accountable for a country’s woes. And when the youth of Greece is rioting on such a scale, in a manner that transcends social classes, it is a sign that the government and state have gone very badly wrong. Mr Karamanlis and his government should resign; Greek politics and the Greek state are in desperate need of a thorough rejuvenation.
For those of us who have been as bemused as much as horrified by the lunacy of Athens’s escalation of the ‘name dispute’ with Macedonia this year, we now have an explanation: Greece’s bullying of Macedonia has been the behaviour of a man on the verge of a nervous breakdown, who lashes out at colleagues, neighbours and family members. But this has not come from nowhere. In a Balkan neighbourhood of unhealthy, dysfunctional states, Greece is one of the sickest. And it is not a new sickness. As Maria Margaronis writes, in one of the best articles on the crisis, the contemporary order in Greece was built on the defeat of the anti-fascist movement in World War II and the Greek Civil War in the 1940s. In one of the most shameful episodes of the Cold War, Britain and the US backed the Greek rightists, their hands stained with collaboration with the Nazis, in their murderous campaign against the anti-fascist left, laying the basis for a post-war Greece whose political classes have behaved with almost unparallelled brutality and irresponsibilty, both toward their own people and toward their neighbours.
The right’s victory in the Greek Civil War set the seal on a post-war Greek state for which persecution of leftists and ethnic minorities would be intrinsic. The victory involved the renewed crushing of the ethnic Macedonian minority in Greece, and ensured the continuation of the pre-war fascist regime’s policy of its forced assimilation, culminating in the campaign in the 1990s to force the newly independent Republic of Macedonia to change its name. Fear of a centre-left electoral victory in 1967 provoked a military coup and the establishment of the Colonels’ junta, which persecuted leftists and democrats, murderously suppressed a student uprising in November 1973 and provoked the Turkish invasion of Cyprus by its adventuristic attempt to annex the island.
Thus, the same brutal, corrupt and unreconstructed Greek state has trampled on Greece’s citizens, ethnic minorities and neighbours alike. The fall of the junta in 1974 did not lead to a thorough democratisation of this state, which continues to this day to persecute its ethnic Macedonian (‘Slavophone’) and its Turkish (‘Muslim’) minorities. Regarding both minorities, Greece has been found guilty of violating their rights by the European Court of Human Rights. Whether in their support for Slobodan Milosevic’s Great Serbian imperialism, persecution of the Republic of Macedonia or obstruction of international recognition of Kosova’s independence, Greece’s political classes have long played a thoroughly regressive role in Balkan regional politics.
The mass mobilisation of youth, spearheaded by anarchists and other radical elements, in response to the police shooting of the teenager Alexandros Grigoropoulos in Exarchia in Athens, is an indication of the extent to which the Greek state is viewed as an alien oppressor by some segments of the population; the police are hated by many Greeks as they are hated among some ethnic minorities in the US and other Western countries. Yet the corruption of the Greek political classes is not limited to the parties of the right; the socialist PASOK actually exceeded New Democracy in the extent of its anti-Macedonian chauvinism and support for Milosevic’s regime in the early 1990s. Nor does PASOK enjoy much greater public confidence than the ruling New Democracy: according to a recent poll, 55% of respondents said neither party appeared competent to handle the situation.
The Communist Party of Greece, for its part, is a Red-Brown party whose chauvinism and xenophobia exceed those of New Democracy and PASOK, as indicated, for example, by its championing of Milosevic and support for the anti-Macedonian campaign. Indeed, in Greece, perhaps more than in any other Balkan country, national chauvinism and anti-Western xenophobia seamlessly unite hardline left-wing and right-wing currents.
After Russia, Belarus and Turkey, Greece is the European country perhaps most in need of a democratic revolution to shake up its political classes and introduce a genuinely democratic culture that will respect the rights of its youth, workers, ethnic minorities and neighbours alike. In these circumstances, it would be a mistake to dismiss the Greek popular protests simply because of the destructive actions of the hooligans who have been smashing up shops, or because of the infantile politics of anarchists and other extreme left-wing elements. As Margaronis notes: ‘Anarchist groups dreaming of revolution played a key part in the first waves of destruction, but this week’s protests were not orchestrated by the usual suspects, who relish a good bust-up and a whiff of teargas. There’s been no siege of the American embassy, no blaming Bush, very few party slogans.’
Indeed, as Takis Michas points out, the unwillingness of the government to halt the violence is itself further indication of its irresponsibility and bankruptcy: ‘Anyone watching this absurd scene could be excused for concluding that a secret deal had been struck between the government and the rioters: We let you torch and plunder to your heart’s content, and you let us continue pretending that we are in charge.’ The political bankruptcy of the mainstream parties has allowed extremists to hijack popular discontent. Yet this does not mean that in Greece – where one in five lives below the poverty line and 70% of those aged 18-25 are unemployed – the people do not have genuine grievances. Only a thorough programme of both democratic and social reforms, an alleviation of social misery and a tackling of corruption, can rescue Greece from the hands of the extremists of both right and left and lay the basis for a functioning Greek democracy. It is to be hoped that the events of the past week will catalyse such a programme of change.
That is why I say: long live the youth, workers and citizens of Greece ! Victory to the Greek revolution !
Just over a year ago, I wrote here of the mysterious phenomenon of the Muslim Nazi division, named ‘Handzar Division’ after the Bosnian SS division of World War II, that, according to supporters of the Great Serbian cause, was established in Bosnia by the regime of Alija Izetbegovic during the 1990s. Evidence for the existence of this division, its size, composition and origins, was taken from a single article in a Western newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, by British journalist Robert Fox, who based his information on the testimony of unnamed UN officials. Fox’s article was glaringly inaccurate – he described Bosnian presidency member Ejup Ganic, for example, as ‘foreign minister’ – but was nevertheless assumed by the supporters of Great Serbia to be gospel truth. Indeed, they even embellished it, attributing claims to Fox that he had never made – such as that Izetbegovic himself had founded this ‘Handzar Division’. I concluded that ‘Monty Python is a much better source for accurate historical information’ than the Great Serbia supporters in question.
It has taken nearly a year for a rebuttal of my article to be attempted, by the amateur historian Carl Savich of the Serb-nationalist website Serbianna. Based on Savich’s sorry effort, I can only feel that my assertion, that Monty Python is a much better source for accurate historical information than Savich and his fellow Serb nationalists, has been entirely vindicated. But before I show why this is so, I’d first like to take note of Savich’s attempt at cutting irony, directed at me, when he says:
‘It appears as though the existence of the reformed Handzar Division was not much of a secret. It was only a secret to the befuddled, lost, and delusional Hoare. This is what occurs when Monty Python’s Flying Circus is the source of your historical research. Hoare should spend more time on analyzing the war crimes trials at the Hague and less time on watching dated TV reruns. Moreover, for history to have any value or merit, objectivity and neutrality must be the goals. Delusional fantasy and ideological propaganda constructs have no place in serious scholarship and history. Monty Python should not be the source for historical information on the civil wars in Bosnia-Hercegovina.’
Savich is responding to my quip about Monty Python by accusing me of actually basing my historical research on Monty Python re-runs. Pretty funny, huh ?
This is, in fact, a rather unfortunate line of humour for Savich to employ. Readers will have noted the image at the start of this post, which shows a cover of the Sarajevo youth magazine Novi Vox, dated October 1991. The cover shows a soldier of the Handzar Division treading on the severed heads of the Bosnian Serb leaders, including Radovan Karadzic, under the headlines ‘The Handzar Division is ready’ and ‘The Fourth Reich is coming – Welcome !’ Savich reproduced this image in his response to me. He writes:
‘In October, 1991, the Bosnian Muslim magazine Novi Vox in Sarajevo, in issue no. 3, well over half a year before the civil war broke out in 1992, published a front-cover illustration showing a Bosnian Muslim Nazi SS officer in the Handzar Division stepping on the decapitated and bloody heads of Serbian leaders, including Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. The caption read: “The Handzar Division is ready!” Another headline announced: “The Fourth Reich is coming—Welcome!” This revival of Bosnia’s Nazi and SS genocidal past was censored, suppressed, and covered-up in the U.S. and the Western media.’
What Savich fails to tell his readers, either because he is dishonest, or – more likely - because he is simply ignorant, is that the magazine in question, Novi Vox, was a satirical magazine of the alternative youth movement in pre-war Sarajevo, similar in character to the US’s The Onion, or to the satirical news sections of the UK’s Private Eye. In the words of cultural anthropologist Ivo Zanic, in his magisterial Flag on the Mountain: A Political Anthropology of War in Croatia and Bosnia, Saqi Books, London, 2007 (pp. 332-333):
‘Even in cases that were pushed too hard or that were quite tasteless, Vox‘s constructions contained enough elements for anyone who approached them with minimal common sense to be able without difficulty to realise that this was satire, in other words, an imagined reality that criticised the real reality. Thus its many agendas and declarations are readable, undoubtedly witty, identifiable ironic commentaries on real agendas, actions and declarations by the political figures of the time, particularly Karadzic’s SDS of Bosnia-Herzegovina.‘
Apparently, however, the ‘minimal common sense’ needed to realise that Vox was a satirical magazine was not possessed by Savich, who treats it as though it were a simple statement of Bosnian Muslim intent. Just imagine someone writing about British politics in the 1980s, who used Spitting Image as their source for what Margaret Thatcher’s policies were, without realising that it was a satirical comedy. Well, that is what Savich has done in respect to Alija Izetbegovic and Vox.
Savich’s suspicions should have been aroused by the fact that the price of the magazine, on the cover he reproduces, is given not only in dinars, the Yugoslav currency, but also in the fictional currency ‘bukvi’, or bukvas. In Zanic’s words (pp. 335-336):
‘Vox regularly printed its price not only in legal Yugoslav dinars but also in the fictitious bukvas. The joke was clear to anyone with half a brain: it referred to the proposal that the currency in Slovenia be called the lipa, linden, because this tree in Slovenia had the status of national symbol, and bukva would be the Bosnian equivalent. This irony, or self-deprecation, for the word bukva in the South Slav lands metaphorically means thickhead, and there are versions such as bukvan, blockhead, and the very common colloquial phrase ‘thick as a bukva‘, implying someone rather slow, good-natured and harmless, a likeable fellow in fact, as well as a number of other phrases and proverbs.’
To repeat: ‘The joke was clear to anyone with half a brain.’ Further comment on Savich’s scholarly competence, and on the tactical wisdom of his attempt at irony regarding research based on comedy, would be superfluous (NB although he describes himself as a ‘historian’, Savich has no historical qualification higher than a Master’s degree; he does not appear ever to have held an academic post, published a book or an article in an academic journal, or visited an archive).
‘The Bosnian Muslim Army and the Bosnian Muslim Government of Alija Izetbegovic and Ejup Ganic sought to re-establish the World War II Nazi Waffen SS Divisions formed out of Bosnian Muslims, the 13th Waffen Gebirgs Division der SS “Handzar/Handschar” and the 23rd Waffen Gebirgs Division der SS “Kama”, formed in 1943-45 by Heinrich Himmler. The London Daily Telegraph of December 29, 1993, in the news report by Robert Fox in Fojnica, “Albanians and Afghans Fight for the Heirs to Bosnian’s SS Past”, has reported that the Bosnian Muslim forces had formed a new and updated version of the World War II Nazi “Handzar” SS Division, made up of about 6,000 troops and supported by the Muslim leadership.’
This is what I wrote, in response to the Serb nationalists and their supporters, like Savich, who have cited Fox’s article:
‘The Bosnian SS Division ‘Handzar’ (or ‘Handschar’) was a unit that existed during World War II, and it is conceivable that there really was a handful of Muslim zealots who, during the recent war, fought on the Bosnian side and grandiloquently named themselves the ‘Handzar Division’ after this historic unit. It is indicative, however, that no other journalist or anyone else seems to have noticed the existence of a unit of ‘up to 6,000 strong’ that named itself after the SS and that was, according to Fox, officered by Albanians and trained by mujahedin veterans from Afghanistan and Pakistan.’
In attempting to rebut me, Savich draws from the documents of the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Of all his earlier claims about the recreated Handzar Division, the only one for which he can find any corroboration at all is the claim that some sort of unit called the ‘Handzar Division’ really existed in Bosnia in the 1990s (and this is not an assertion I ever denied; as I wrote, ‘it is conceivable that there really was a handful of Muslim zealots who, during the recent war, fought on the Bosnian side and grandiloquently named themselves the “Handzar Division” after this historic unit.’)
Other than that,
1) Although Savich previously claimed that the recreated ‘Handzar Division’ was made up of ‘about 6,000 troops’, it now transpires, according to the evidence he provides, that the ‘Handzar Division’ was a ‘small unit’; so small, in fact, that it was merged with other units as part of a policy ‘of making larger units out of smaller ones’. Indeed, although Savich’s ICTY source does not provide any figure for the ‘Handzar Division’s’ troop strength, the unit is listed alongside other small units that range from about 30 for ‘Cedo’s wolves’ to 150 for the ‘Prozor Independent Battalion’. So it seems we really are talking about a handful of zealots, rather than an actual division.
2) The evidence Savich cites completely fails to substantiate his earlier claim, that Izetbegovic and Ganic had had anything to do with the formation of this ‘Handzar Division’.
Savich now claims: ‘This evidence confirms conclusively that the Bosnian Muslim Government of Alija Izetbegovic and the Bosnian Muslim Army recreated and reformed the Bosnian Muslim Nazi SS Division from World War II.’
This is simply a bare-faced lie, something that will be clear to anyone who reads his article and tries to find the supposed ‘evidence’ (the Bosnian Army, it should be said, was in the habit of incorporating into its ranks independent or autonomous units formed by local strongmen, as well as those of the foreign mujahedin and Bosnian Croat nationalists).
3) The evidence Savich cites completely fails to substantiate Fox’s claim, which he endorsed, that the recreated ‘Handzar Division’ had been trained by mujahedin from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
4) The ICTY’s judges, as cited by Savich (‘Prosecutor vs Sefer Halilovic: Judgement’, 16 November 2005), do not claim to know who formed, named or trained this ‘Handzar Division’, or how many troops it contained. Based on witness testimony, they say only that the unit was made up of Albanians and that its commander’s nickname was ‘Dzeki’. Based on the evidence presented to them, they conclude: ‘The Trial Chamber has not been furnished with evidence regarding the composition of this unit’. The ICTY’s standards of documentary evidence are, it would seem, somewhat more strict than those of Savich and his pals at Serbianna.
What we have here, is a case of a number of Serb nationalists and their fellow travellers, who have made wild claims in an attempt to discredit the former Bosnian regime of Alija Izetbegovic, in order to justify the genocidal campaign for a Great Serbia that they supported. When challenged to provide evidence for their claims, they find themselves unable to do so, so the claims in question shrink accordingly, to the point where they effectively disappear.
Update: A closer examination of one of the documents cited by Savich, the Halilovic trial transcript of 21 February 2005, #050221ED, reveals the following testimony about the troop size of the ‘Handzar Division’:
’5 Q. And then which soldiers came?
6 A. All the units that were there, Cedo’s Wolves, the 2nd Independent
7 Battalion, Handzar’s Division, Zuka’s men, and all the others. In all,
8 there were 100 to 150 soldiers.’
It would seem that the ‘Handzar Division’, confidently described as numbering ‘about 6,000 troops’ by our friend, does indeed turn out to be a bit smaller when the available evidence is examined closely…
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