The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has had a bumpy journey since its foundation in 1993. It has long been condemned by Serb and to a lesser extent Croat nationalists, as well as by left-wing and right-wing hardliners in the West, as a political court set up to serve the interests of the Great Powers. But until recently, it has been supported by liberals in the former Yugoslavia and in the West and beyond, as a positive and necessary exercise in international justice – albeit one that has not produced very satisfactory results. In recent months, however, a realignment has taken place: former supporters of the ICTY have begun to condemn it in the same ‘anti-imperialist’ terms used by the nationalists, and to present its judgements as the work of Great Power intrigue. Their anger has focused above all on the figure of Judge Theodor Meron, President of the ICTY. Meron is a Polish Jew by birth and a Holocaust survivor, who emigrated to Israel, was educated at the University of Jerusalem, and served as legal advisor to the Israeli Foreign Ministry and as Israel’s ambassador to Canada and to the UN, before emigrating to the US. Meron is no Zionist hawk; in 1967, he wrote a memo for Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol advising against the building of settlements in the newly occupied West Bank and Golan Heights. Yet with a sad inevitability, his Jewish and Israeli background have taken on a sinister prominence in the current campaign against him.
Continue reading at Engage – the anti-racist campaign against antisemitism
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia has acquitted on appeal Momcilo Perisic, former Chief of Staff of the Army of Yugoslavia (VJ), who had previously been sentenced to 27 years in prison for war-crimes in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina. He was one of only six officials from Serbia-Montenegro ever indicted by the ICTY for war-crimes in Bosnia. He was the only member of the high command of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) or VJ ever indicted for war-crimes in Croatia or Bosnia, and the only former JNA officer from Serbia or Montenegro of any rank ever indicted over Bosnia. His acquittal means that, to date, no official or army officer of Serbia-Montenegro and no member of the JNA or VJ high command has been convicted by the ICTY for war-crimes in Bosnia. By any standards, this represents a monumental failure on the part of the Tribunal. Precisely what kind of failure, and whether it is a failure of the Prosecution or the judges or both, is open to debate.
Perisic’s acquittal follows the ICTY’s recent acquittals of Croatia’s Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac, and of Kosovo’s Ramush Haradinaj. Those previous acquittals had provoked a veritable paroxysm of fury from Serbia’s politicians such as President Tomislav Nikolic, Prime Minister Ivica Dacic and UN General Assembly president Vuk Jeremic, who condemned them as proving that the ICTY was an anti-Serb and/or a political court. Commentators in the West widely agreed; an ill-informed rant by David Harland, former head of UN Civil Affairs in Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1993-1995, upholding all the old Serb-nationalist stereotypes of the ICTY’s and West’s supposed anti-Serb bias, was published in the New York Times and received wide publicity even from reputable sources. People who had apparently been fairly satisfied with the ICTY’s not entirely glorious performance over the past two decades now emerged from the woodwork to denounce it in bitter terms.
The acquittal of such a high-ranking Serbian official, following the acquittal of two high-ranking Croats and one high-ranking Kosovo Albanian, provides further proof – if any were needed – that the ICTY is not ‘anti-Serb’. Perisic is, in fact, neither the first nor the most high-ranking senior Serbian official to be acquitted by the Tribunal; former Serbian President Milan Milutinovic was acquitted back in 2009 of war crimes against Kosovo Albanians.
Consequently, the Serbian government has now made a rapid U-turn in its view of the Tribunal. Prime Minister Dacic (also leader of the Socialist Party of Serbia founded by Slobodan Milosevic) had responded to the Gotovina and Markac acquittals by stating ‘This confirms the claims of those who say that the Hague Tribunal is not a court and that it completes political tasks that were set in advance’. Yet his reaction to the Perisic acquittal is that it ‘negates accusations about the alleged aggression of the Army of Yugoslavia against Bosnia and Croatia’. The latter conclusion is echoed by the Sense News Agency, which provides detailed overage of the activities of the ICTY and which claims that ‘Momcilo Perisic was the only senior official from Serbia and FR Yugoslavia convicted by the Tribunal and sentenced for crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Slobodan Milosevic was charged with the same crimes, and the judgment can be considered as Milosevic’s posthumous acquittal for Sarajevo and Srebrenica.’
In these circumstances, there is naturally a temptation for those on the other side of the front-lines from the Serb nationalists – those who wanted to see the Serbian perpetrators of war-crimes in Croatia and Bosnia punished, and the victims receive justice – to cry foul, and to carry out a Dacic-style U-turn of their own. A temptation, that is, to say that the supporters of Milosevic, Seselj and Tudjman were right after all, and the ICTY is really just a kangaroo court whose verdicts are political. But this temptation should be resisted, both for pragmatic reasons and, more importantly, for reasons of principle.
Pragmatically, conceding that the ICTY is a kangaroo court whose verdicts are political means handing an enormous victory to those extremists – Serb and Croat, right-wing and left-wing – who supported the elements that carried out the war-crimes and that have always resisted the efforts of the ICTY to punish them. It is not for nothing that – both in the former Yugoslavia and in the West – ethnic cleansers, fascists and extremists have consistently opposed the Tribunal, whereas liberals, democrats and progressives have supported it. To reject the legitimacy of the ICTY and its verdicts means negating not only those verdicts we don’t like, but all the good that has been achieved by precisely this Tribunal, despite its undeniable numerous failures. The ICTY was the first international court to establish that the Srebrenica massacre was an act of genocide, paving the way for the confirmation of this fact by the International Court of Justice.
Immediately following the acquittals of Gotovina, Markac and Haradinaj, the ICTY in December of last year convicted Zdravko Tolimir, Assistant Commander of Intelligence and Security of the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS), for genocide, and in the process established that the group targeted for genocide by the VRS was the Muslim population of East Bosnia as a whole – not just of Srebrenica – and that the genocidal act extended to Zepa as well as Srebrenica. It is a tremendous breakthrough for the legal recognition of the Bosnian genocide beyond Srebrenica. If the Perisic acquittal is to be dismissed as a political verdict, it undermines the Tolimir verdict as well. You cannot have it both ways, and cheer the verdicts with which you agree while denouncing those you don’t like. Either the ICTY is a legitimate court or it is not.
Which brings us to the matter of principle: a genuine, legitimate court must have the right and ability to acquit, as well as to convict. If the ICTY were really a kangaroo court, all those accused would be convicted. Instead of which, we have proof of genuine pluralism, with panels of judges dividing 2-1 and 3-2 over major cases, and the Appeals Chamber reversing the decision of the Trial Chambers. Whatever his political views or personal inclinations, Judge Theodor Meron, presiding judge at both the Appeals Chamber that acquitted Gotovina and Markac and the one that acquitted Perisic, and currently under attack from critics for the acquittals, was in each case only one judge in a panel of five who came from different countries. He was the only judge who acquitted both Gotovina and Markac on the one hand and Perisic on the other, and was not even a member of the Trial Chamber that acquitted Haradinaj. The only other judge who was a member of the Appeals Chamber both for Gotovina-Markac and for Perisic was Carmel Agius, and he strongly opposed the acquittal of Gotovina and Markac but supported that of Perisic. Judge Bakone Justice Moloto was presiding judge both in the Trial Chamber that convicted Perisic and in the Trial Chamber that acquitted Haradinaj. In the first case, he dissented from the majority opinion but was outvoted – something that took place in September 2011, a mere year and a half ago. Hence, I must respectfully disagree with my colleague Eric Gordy, who argues that the acquittals all form part of a consistent policy on the part of the judges in this period.
The conspiracy theorists (among whom I do not include Eric) would either have us believe that the initial indictments of Gotovina/Perisic and their initial convictions were simply elaborate deceptions paving the way for the final, pre-determined acquittals. Or they would have us believe that whenever the ICTY convicts it is acting legitimately and whenever it acquits it is acting politically. But a court that only convicts and never acquits is not a genuine court. Even at the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg that tried the leaders of Nazi Germany after World War II, three of the twenty-four defendants – i.e. one in eight of the high-ranking officials of Nazi Germany who were prosecuted – were acquitted. The whole point of a fair trial is that guilt is not assumed and defendants are assumed to be innocent until proven guilty.
The present author has, in the past, condemned the ICTY for retreating in the face of Serbian obstruction of its activities, citing such instances as the failure to indict most of the leading members of the Joint Criminal Enterprise from Serbia and Montenegro; the acquittal of Radovan Karadzic on one count of genocide; and the censoring of the minutes of the Supreme Defence Council. However, the acquittal of Perisic is not part of this pattern; he had already been arrested and convicted, so any Serbian resistance in his case had already been overcome.
It is one thing to accuse the Tribunal of shabby or unprincipled compromises and retreats, but quite another to accuse it of actually falsifying the guilt or innocence of suspects. Karadzic’s acquittal aside, the present author has never accused the Tribunal either of acquitting anyone guilty or of convicting anyone innocent. I did not, for example, condemn its initial conviction of Gotovina and Markac. Nor did I condemn its acquittal of Milutinovic or of Miroslav Radic (one of the three JNA officers indicted over the Vukovar hospital massacre). I am somewhat amazed that so many people, of all national backgrounds and political persuasions, have so little respect for the principle that it is ultimately for the court to decide who is innocent and who is guilty. Of course, it is entirely possible for a court to get things wrong and for a miscarriage of justice to occur. But a miscarriage of justice needs careful explaining as to how it was arrived at, not mere petulant denunciation.
In the case of Perisic, the essence of the disagreement between the Trial Chamber majority and the Appeals Chamber majority was that the first considered that ‘under the VRS’s strategy there was no clear distinction between military warfare against BiH forces and crimes against civilians/and or persons not taking active part in hostilities’, while the latter argued that ‘the VRS was not an organisation whose actions were criminal per se; instead, it was an army fighting a war’, albeit one that also engaged in criminal activities. Thus, the Trial Chamber considered that there was no clear distinction between the VRS’s lawful and its criminal actions, while the Appeals Chamber considered that there was.
Furthermore, the Trial Chamber ruled that though it could not be proven that the military assistance provided by Perisic to the VRS was specifically intended by him to support its criminal as opposed to its legal activities, nevertheless, since he clearly knew that his assistance would be used for criminal activities at Sarajevo and Srebrenica, as well as for legal military purposes, he was therefore guilty of aiding and abetting its criminal activities. The Appeals Chamber, by contrast, ruled that since it could not be proven that that he intended his military assistance to be used for criminal as opposed to legal military purposes, he could not be held to have criminal intent and therefore be held culpable for aiding and abetting the VRS’s crimes.
In other words, there is little disagreement between the two Chambers regarding facts of the case (so far as the Bosnian part of it is concerned) but principally over what conclusion should be drawn from them. The disagreement is not equivalent to that between the Trial Chamber and Appeals Chamber in the case of Gotovina and Markac, when the two chambers fundamentally disagreed over what the facts were; i.e. over whether the Croatian Army had deliberately shelled civilian targets with the intent of bringing about the removal of the Serb population from the so-called Krajina region. In the case of Perisic, the Appeals Chamber was not throwing out an unsafe conviction based upon a highly spurious interpretation of events, as was the case with the acquittal of Gotovina and Markac. Rather, it was expressing a different judgement on the nature of culpability to that of the Trial Chamber.
In this disagreement, my own sympathies are entirely with the Trial Chamber, and I applaud the dissent from the Appeals Chamber majority opinion of Judge Liu Daqun, who argued that by acquitting Perisic, the Appeals Chamber was setting the bar too high for convictions on grounds of aiding and abetting. However, personal sympathies aside and on the understanding that judges are supposed to be wholly impartial, the conclusions of either Chamber could legitimately be drawn from the facts. Unfortunately, the more conservative type of conclusion of the Appeals Chamber is the one I would have predicted judges at the ICTY usually to reach. My colleague Florian Bieber has made the reasonable point that ‘arguing that not all [the VRS's] activities were criminal is about as convincing as stating that the Mafia is not only involved in criminal activities and thus supporting it does not mean that one is “aiding and abetting” criminal activities.’ Following that analogy, Perisic could be compared to a powerful businessman who donates money, vehicles and properties to a charity known to be acting as a front for Mafia activities. Even if he clearly knew the charity’s true purpose, convicting him might not be so easy for the courts. Al Capone was, after all, only convicted for tax evasion.
This brings us to the ultimate reason for Perisic’s acquittal: the Prosecution’s case against him, resting as it did on a model of culpability that was judicially controversial, was not a strong one. The Prosecution was unable to prove his intent to commit crime, or that the assistance he provided to the VRS was intended to further its crimes. It was unable to link him directly to any specific crime. It could merely prove that he aided and abetted an army – the VRS – that he knew was engaging in criminal activities, but which was also engaging in lawful military activities.
The second reason why the Prosecution’s case was weak concerns the question of command responsibility. The Trial Chamber ruled that Perisic had no command responsibility over VRS forces, but that he did have such authority over the ‘Serb Army of Krajina’ (SVK – so-called ‘Croatian Serbs’), and in addition to aiding and abetting the VRS forces engaged in criminal acts as Sarajevo and Srebrenica, it convicted him for failing to punish the SVK perpetrators who shelled Zagreb in May 1995, killing and injuring civilians. But the Trial Chamber recognised that Perisic had ordered the SVK not to shell Zagreb and that it had disregarded his orders, choosing instead to obey the orders of Milan Martic, ‘President of the Republic of Serb Krajina’, to shell the city. This implicit recognition of Perisic’s lack of effective command responsibility over the SVK forces formed the basis for the Appeal Chamber’s overturning of his conviction for the war-crime at Zagreb – and even Judge Liu, who dissented from the majority over Perisic’s acquittal for Sarajevo and Srebrenica, agreed with the majority on this count. In other words, the Prosecution chose to indict someone who had no command responsibility over the Bosnian Serb forces guilty of crimes in Bosnia (Sarajevo and Srebrenica) and only ambiguous command responsibility over the Croatian Serb forces guilty of crimes in Croatia (Zagreb).
Having myself worked as a war-crimes investigator at the ICTY, I am not at all surprised that four out of the five judges (and one out of three in the original Trial Chamber) were not convinced by the Prosecution’s case. Generally speaking, cases involving high-ranking perpetrators far removed from the crime base are complicated to build unless their command responsibility is clear and unambiguous. Thus, it was relatively straightforward to build a case against Milosevic for war-crimes in Kosovo, where his command responsibility (as President of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia) was clear. But more complicated to do so over Bosnia, where (as President of Serbia) it was not. In such cases where evidence of de jure responsibility is lacking, prosecutors need strong evidence of de facto responsibility.
But Perisic was not a Milosevic, Karadzic or Mladic. He was not a member of the top Serbian-Montenegrin-JNA leadership that planned and instigated the wars against Croatia and Bosnia, and his name is not listed among the principal members of the Joint Criminal Enterprise as laid down in the Milosevic indictments. He was commander of the Artillery School Centre in Zadar in Croatia, and in January 1992 became commander of the JNA’s 13th Corps, based in Bileca in Hercegovina. In these roles of less than primary importance, he participated directly in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia. Had the Prosecution chosen to indict him for war-crimes committed by his forces in this period, he would in all likelihood have been convicted. However, it did not.
The three principal phases of mass killing by Serb forces in the Bosnian war were the initial Serbian blitzkrieg of spring, summer and autumn 1992, resulting in the Serbian conquest of about 70% of Bosnian territory; the siege of Sarajevo, lasting from spring 1992 until autumn 1995; and the Srebrenica massacre of July 1995. The first of these claimed by far the largest number of victims; according to the figures provided by Mirsad Tokaca’s Research and Documentation Centre, more Bosniaks were killed in the Podrinje region (East Bosnia) in 1992 than in 1995, the year of the Srebrenica massacre. Moreover, the regular Serb army forces that undertook the initial blitzkrieg, until 19 May 1992, were formally part of the JNA and not only de facto but also de jure under the command and control of Serbia-Montenegro, in the form of the rump Yugoslav Federal presidency made up of members from Serbia and Montenegro, and of the high command of the JNA/VJ.
Had the ICTY Prosecution indicted the top JNA commanders and Yugoslav Presidency members (from Serbia and Montenegro) who commanded these Serb forces during the blitzkrieg, and prior to that the earlier assault on Croatia, they would no doubt have been successful and Serbia’s direct responsibility for the war in Bosnia would have been judicially established. A successful outcome would have been particularly likely, given that a couple of these war-criminals have been obliging enough to publish their memoirs or diaries in which they admit their planning of the war.
On 19 May 1992, however, the newly proclaimed Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY), comprising Serbia and Montenegro, formally withdrew its forces from Bosnia, and a Bosnia Serb army – the VRS – formally came into being. Serbia’s political and military leadership thereby ceased to have de jure command and control over the Bosnian Serb forces. Furthermore, the Trial Chamber that convicted Perisic ruled that, in fact, the Serbian leadership in this period did not have even de facto control over the Bosnian Serb forces either – as did the International Court of Justice, in its own 2007 verdict in the case of Bosnia vs Serbia. The arrangement whereby the Bosnian Serb war-effort would be formally independent of Belgrade was put in place with the deliberate intention by Serbia’s leadership of avoiding accusations of aggression and involvement in the Bosnian war. Of course, Serbia continued to provide extensive financial and military support to the Bosnian Serb forces. But it should have been clear to any war-crimes investigator worth their salt that convicting FRY military commanders of war-crimes in Bosnia after 19 May 1992 would be a much more difficult task.
Momcilo Perisic became Chief of Staff of FRY’s army, the VJ, only in August 1993, and his indictment by the ICTY only covers his activities from this period. The policy of supporting the VRS had been put in place under his predecessors, and though he was a strong supporter of the policy and apparently institutionalised it, he was scarcely its architect. Even as regards the siege of Sarajevo – one of the two crimes in Bosnia for which Perisic was indicted – the Serb killings of civilians peaked in the spring and summer of 1992 and dropped considerably thereafter, dropping particularly from around the time that Perisic took over (according to Tokaca’s figures). Chief of Staff Perisic was therefore a singularly bad choice of individual to indict for war-crimes in the period from August 1993: though he was not a simple figurehead equivalent to President Milutinovic, and enjoyed real authority in a post of considerable importance, he was ultimately just one of Milosevic’s interchangeable officers; little more than a cog, albeit a large one, in the military machine, and moreover in a part of the machine whose culpability for actual war-crimes was secondary at the time, since the Milosevic regime had devolved most of the killing to a different part – the VRS.
Had the ICTY prosecutors ever really understood the chronology and organisation of the Serb aggression against Bosnia, they could have avoided such a poor decision. But it is clear from reading Carla del Ponte’s memoirs that she, at least, never had more than a muddled understanding of it. She nebulously attributes primary and equal responsibility to the war as a whole to two individuals, Slobodan Milosevic and Franjo Tudjman, but is unable to explain how that responsibility translated into the form that the war took. Although she deserves credit for eschewing a narrowly legalistic and lawyerly approach to war-crimes prosecutions and for attempting to view the big picture of the war – and therefore for insisting on genocide indictments in the face of conservative resistance from some of her colleagues – the big picture that she viewed was an erroneous one. Her starting point was not a global systemic analysis of the aggression, but apparently the big crimes with which she herself, as a non-expert on the war, was familiar – the siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica massacre.
In her own memoirs, del Ponte’s former spokeswoman Florence Hartmann recalls that del Ponte insisted, among other things, that Milosevic himself be indicted for Srebrenica and Sarajevo, in the face of resistance from Geoffrey Nice and others, who feared that they would not be able to convince the judges of the validity of the charge. Del Ponte was thus motivated by the commendable desire to ensure that Serbia’s leadership would not escape responsibility for the killing in Bosnia, but her analytical confusion ensured her plan would not go well. In light of Perisic’s acquittal, Nice’s caution, as recalled by Hartmann, appears entirely vindicated. That said, it is worth restating that Perisic’s indictment covered only the period from August 1993, when he was Chief of Staff, not the period when the Serbian aggression was actually launched and the largest part of the killings occurred. Thus, the claims made by Dacic and by the Sense News Agency, that the verdict exonerates Milosevic and Serbia of aggression against Bosnia and Croatia and of culpability in the siege of Sarajevo, are unfounded. Furthermore, as noted above, the Appeals Chamber has not actually changed the facts as established by the Trial Chamber: that the VRS was engaged in criminal activity, at Sarajevo and Srebrenica, and that Serbia’s army was aiding and abetting it while it was doing so.
On Twitter, Luka Misetic, the lawyer who successfully represented Gotovina, has succinctly referred to ‘Carla Del Ponte’s dark legacy: Perisic, Haradinaj, Oric, Gotovina, Cermak, Markac, Boskoski, Halilovic all indicted by CDP, all acquitted.’ The failure at the ICTY is that of a Prosecution that has repeatedly failed to secure the convictions of those it has indicted, not of the judges who were unconvinced by its cases.
David Harland, Executive Director of the Center for Humanitarian Dialogue and head of UN Civil Affairs in Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1993-1995, recently published, in the New York Times, a polemic against the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Responding to the recent acquittals of Croatia’s Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac and Kosovo’s Ramush Haradinaj, he accused the Tribunal of ‘selective justice’ on the grounds that it has essentially only convicted Serb perpetrators, acquitted non-Serb perpetrators and failed to punish crimes against Serbs. This is, of course, the claim that hardline Serb nationalists and supporters of Slobodan Milosevic have been making for about the last two decades. Instead of carrying out any research into the actual record of the ICTY in order to support his thesis, Harland simply repeats a string of cliches of the kind that frequently appear in anti-Hague diatribes by Serb nationalists.
1) Harland writes: ‘More Serbs were displaced — ethnically cleansed — by the wars in the Balkans than any other community. And more Serbs remain ethnically displaced to this day.’
Harland doesn’t provide any statistical evidence to support this claim, but he appears to be conflating being ‘displaced’ with being ‘ethnically cleansed’, and to count all Serbs displaced by all the wars in Croatia, Bosnia and Kosovo as having been ‘ethnically cleansed’ – as opposed to being evacuated by the Serb authorities themselves, for example, or fleeing Sarajevo to escape the siege. The Appeals Chamber of the ICTY, in acquitting Gotovina, Markac and Haradinaj, rejected the prosecution’s claims that a Joint Criminal Enterprise (JCE) existed, on the part of either the Croatian or the Kosovar Albanian perpetrators, to bring about the removal of the Serb population from either ‘Krajina’ or Kosovo. Harland has not attempted to address the Appeal Chamber’s conclusions. He has simply re-stated a falsehood after two panels of judges carefully explained why the claims on which it was based are false.
2) Harland writes ‘Almost no one has been held to account [for these crimes against Serbs], and it appears that no one will be… Convicting only Serbs simply doesn’t make sense in terms of justice, in terms of reality, or in terms of politics.’
It is untrue that nobody has been convicted by the ICTY for crimes against Serbs, or that no non-Serbs have been convicted. Bosniaks, Croats and Albanians convicted of crimes against Serbs include Rasim Delic, the top Bosnian army commander in 1993-1995; Enver Hadzihasanovic, former commander of the Bosnian army’s 3rd Corps; Amir Kubura, former commander of the 7th Muslim Mountain Brigade; Zdravko Mucic, Hazim Delic and Esad Landzo, former commanders and guard for the Celebici prison-camp; and Kosova Liberation Army camp guard Haradin Bala. Former Croatian Army major-general Mirko Norac was indicted by the ICTY for crimes against Serb civilians in the Medak Pocket in September 1993; his case was transferred to the Zagreb District Court, which convicted him.
3) Harland writes: ‘Altogether, almost all of the West’s friends have been acquitted; almost all of the Serbs have been found guilty.’
Harland appears here to be following the example of the extreme Serb nationalists who divide all former Yugoslavs into ‘Serbs’ on the one hand and ‘friends of the West’ on the other, and who claim that the ICTY ‘persecutes’ Serbs because they are independent of the West. Yet two of the most senior Serb officials to be convicted by the ICTY, former Republika Srpska president Biljana Plavsic and former Yugoslav Army chief of staff Momcilo Perisic, had pursued friendly relations with the West in the second half of the 1990s. On the other hand, being unfriendly to the West is scarcely something of which other prominent Serb indictees can be accused, since Western and Serb officials spent the best part of the 1990s collaborating with one another.
Ratko Mladic and Britain’s Michael Rose
Slobodan Milosevic and the US’s Richard Holbrooke
Ratko Mladic and the Netherlands’ Thom Karremans
Milosevic and Holbrooke again
4) Harland writes: ‘Convicting only Serbs simply doesn’t make sense in terms of justice, in terms of reality, or in terms of politics. The Croatian leaders connived in the carve-up of Yugoslavia, and contributed mightily to the horrors on Bosnia and Herzegovina. I witnessed for myself the indiscriminate fury of the Croatian assault on the beautiful city of Mostar.’
Harland either does not know, or chooses not to mention, that the ICTY is currently prosecuting a group of prominent Bosnian Croat perpetrators for crimes carried out in Bosnia: Milivoj Petkovic, Jadranko Prlic, Slobodan Praljak, Bruno Stojic, Valentic Coric and Berislav Pusic. They are specifically being tried over the Croatian attack on Mostar. The ICTY has already convicted a large number of Croat perpetrators, including Dario Kordic, wartime leader of the Croatian Democratic Union in Bosnia and vice-president of the Croat Community of Herceg-Bosna, and Tihomir Blaskic, former commander of the (Bosnian) Croat Council of Defence (hence equal in rank to the Bosnian Serbs’ Ratko Mladic) and inspector in the General Inspectorate of the Croatian Army. NB Blaskic spent longer in prison than any Yugoslav army officer sentenced over the 1991-1992 Croatian war, except Mile Mrksic.
5) Harland continues: ‘The Bosnian Muslim leadership had deeply compromising links to the international jihahist movement, and hosted at least three people who went on to play key roles in the 9/11 attacks on the United States. I witnessed attacks by foreign mujahedeen elements against Croat civilians in the Lasva Valley.’
The accusation regarding the Bosnian government’s supposed links to the international jihadist movement and 9/11 attackers is sheer Islamophobic defamation. As regards the mujahedin, Harland either does not know, or chooses not to mention, that Rasim Delic, commander of the Bosnian army from June 1993 until the end of the war, was convicted by the ICTY over crimes carried out by the mujahedin against Serb civilians. On the other hand, the ICTY Appeals Chamber found in the case of Bosnian army 3rd Corps commander Enver Hadzihasanovic that he could not be held culpable for the crimes of the mujahedin, since ‘the relationship between the El Mujahedin detachment and the 3rd Corps was not one of subordination. It was quite close to overt hostility since the only way to control the El Mujahedin detachment was to attack them as if they were a distinct enemy force.’
As with the Croatian attack on Mostar, so with the Bosnian government and the mujahedin, Harland’s portrayal of the ICTY as simply having ignored the crimes in question reflects either an extraordinary degree of ignorance regarding the ICTY’s record, or is deliberately deceptive of his readers.
6) Harland continues: ‘And the Kosovar Albanian authorities deserve a special mention, having taken ethnic cleansing to its most extreme form — ridding themselves almost entirely of the Serb and Roma populations. Kosovo’s ancient Christian Orthodox monasteries are now almost the only reminder of a once-flourishing non-Albanian population… Haradinaj has been cleared of the charges brought against him, but the fact remains that hundreds of thousands of Serbs — mostly the elderly, women and children — were ethnically cleansed from Kosovo by the Kosovar Albanians.’
Again, Harland does not attempt to address the ICTY judges’ refutation of the claim that Kosovar Albanians had engaged in a ‘Joint Criminal Enterprise’ to remove the Serb and other non-Albanian population from Kosovo. His claims that the Kosovar Albanian authorities have succeeded in ‘ridding themselves almost entirely of the Serb and Roma populations’ and that ‘hundreds of thousands of Serbs — mostly the elderly, women and children — were ethnically cleansed from Kosovo by the Kosovar Albanians’ are further falsehoods: of the roughly 200,000 Serbs living in Kosovo before 1999, roughly half are still there.
7) Harland concludes: ‘What has happened at the tribunal is far from justice, and will be interpreted by observers in the Balkans and beyond as the continuation of war by legal means — with the United States, Germany and other Western powers on one side, and the Serbs on the other.’
To which one can reply: only by anti-Western Serb-nationalist politicians and ideologues and their fellow travellers.
Perhaps the most disgraceful statement in Harland’s tissue of falsehoods is his claim that ‘I lived through the siege of Sarajevo.’ In fact, as the UN’s head of Civil Affairs in Bosnia from June 1993 until the end of the war, Harland was scarcely a victim of the siege. Following the Markale massacre in Sarajevo of 28 August 1995, when Serb shelling killed 37 civilians, Harland engendered the myth that the Bosnians themselves might have been responsible; as he testified, ‘I advised [UN commander] General Smith on that one occasion to be a little unclear about what we knew about the point of origin of the mortar shell that landed on the Markale market-place in order to give us time, give UNPROFOR time, to get UNPROFOR and UN people off Serb territory so they couldn’t be harmed or captured when General Smith turned the key to authorise air-strikes against the Serbs. That is true. That was less than fully honest.’
Indeed, the UN in Bosnia collaborated with the Serb besiegers of Sarajevo and helped to maintain the siege. It obstructed any possibility of outside military intervention to halt the genocide. It maintained an arms embargo that prevented the victims of the genocide from defending themselves properly. It was complicit in the murder of Bosnian deputy prime-minister Hakija Turajlic by Serb forces in January 1993. It abandoned the ‘safe areas’ of Srebrenica and Zepa to Mladic’s genocidal operations. Romeo Dallaire said of the UN, ‘Ultimately, led by the United States, France and the United Kingdom, this world body aided and abetted genocide in Rwanda. No amount of its cash and aid will ever wash its hands clean of Rwandan blood.’ The same could be said of the UN with regard to Bosnia and Bosnian blood. Yet no former UN or other international official has been prosecuted by the ICTY or any other court for complicity in genocide or war-crimes. That is a real scandal of selective justice about which Harland has nothing to say.
This is a guest post by Dunja Melcic
The judgment of the Appeal Chamber, presided over by the eminent lawyer and Tribunal President Theodor Meron, to quash on all counts the first instance convictions handed down against two Croatian military commanders in connection with the so-called ‘Operation Storm’ (August 1995) is to be welcomed all round. This decision helps to repair the damage done to the Court’s reputation by the first instance judgment. Western agencies and media have generally reported this ruling as ‘surprising’. It is not; it is absolutely sound, as anyone will agree after rapidly reading through the summary of the judgment.
The five-member Appeal Chamber panel unanimously agreed that the Court had erred in its original conclusion that the attack on four towns in the area controlled by the Serb rebels was unlawful. The premise on which this finding was based was the Trial Chamber’s application of a principle which deemed all shots landing more than 200 metres from the target to be unlawful artillery attacks; the Trial Chamber’s conclusions gave no explanation for the adoption of this principle, the previously unknown ‘200 Metre Standard’. ‘The Trial Judgement contains no indication that any evidence considered by the Trial Chamber suggested a 200-metre margin of error, and it is devoid of any specific reasoning as to how the Trial Chamber derived this margin of error’. Because all of the Court’s other findings were dependent on this finding, now proved incorrect, they were set aside by the majority at Appeal Chamber, two members dissenting. Since as a consequence there was no unlawful attack against the four towns, the Trial Chamber’s judgment that the Serb population were deported must fall.
The verdict of the Trial Chamber presided over by the Dutch lawyer Alphons Orie, handed down on 14 April 2011, was wrong and its finding of guilt absurd; highly so, even, the terse summary of the Appeal Chamber’s conclusion would suggest. The verdict had to be quashed because the good name of the International Tribunal would have been damaged beyond repair and along with it the reputation of a Court which has achieved historic advances in the field of international criminal law as a result of the investigations it has carried out since 1995, numerous soundly-crafted verdicts and important ground-breaking decisions. The prattling, ill informed international media may not have realised that the outstanding lawyer that Meron is, was unwilling to jeopardise his own reputation, his judicial prestige and his moral integrity by allowing such a defective judicial finding to stand unchallenged.
Some events during the trial and the evaluations of the Trial Chamber
Many negative reactions to the Appeal Chamber’s decision suggest that the critics were not aware of what was really happening at the trial against the three accused Croatian commander, nor did they look into the original verdict of the Trial Chamber with due commitment. According to this verdict, i.e. after a close reading of the full text of it, the Trial Chamber points to no satisfactory proof for the allegations made by the prosecution. The alleged criminal cases are extremely contradictory. One example is the case of the death of a Mrs Stegnajic, who was found dead in a well by her husband. UNCIVPOL and Jacques Morneau, the Battalion Commander of Canbat who testified at the Court, had found on the spot that it was a suicide. The Trial Chamber inferred from the ‘relevant evidence with regard to the alleged murder of Ljubica Stegnajic’ that it ‘does not allow for a conclusion that Ljubica Stegnajic was killed’. So the Court establishes that this was not the alleged murder and that ‘the Trial Chamber will not further consider this incident in relation to Count 1 of the Indictment.’ But there is more to the story. In mid-August 1995, Mrs Stegnajic remained alone in her house in Benkovac because her husband had been compelled to leave home by some marauding troops; he told the staff of the Canadian camp that ‘two Croatians, dressed in civilian clothing, with long hair, carrying AK-47 rifles, had come to his house and told him to go away’. It is difficult to understand why the Trial Chamber was discussing this case in extenso in the first place. And even less understandable is the Chamber’s relying on this case of indeed appalling harassment of civilians as a ‘finding’ of ‘deportation and forcible transfer’ of Serb population committed by the accused.
This example may serve as a demonstration of the Chamber’s method: where there was no proof, the Chamber invented constructions as ‘findings’: the prosecution did not prove the alleged unlawful artillery attacks, so the Chamber invented the 200-Metre Standard. Another curious invention by the Trial Chamber is the ‘whole towns’ theory. In the indictment, the prosecutors interpreted Gotovina’s orders to put the towns of Knin, Benkovac, Obrovac, and Gračac under artillery fire as a strategy ‘to treat whole towns as targets’ concocted by ‘members of the Croatian political and military leadership’. This is in open contradiction to the orders of the Croatian president from the same minutes the prosecutor was using, albeit skipping the passage stating that all targets should be precisely defined – every spot, direction and line. The Trial Chamber disregarded this; it dismissed the testimony of the Croatian artillery officer Marko Rajcic, involved in implementing that order, concerning ‘previously selected targets with specific coordinates in these towns’ to be ‘put under constant disruptive artillery fire’ because it deemed this testimony to contradict their conclusion about the disproportionate attack on Knin. This conclusion was drawn on the basis of the testimony by expert Harry Konings, whose expertise was disputed at the trial; the Trial Chamber was ready ‘to accept certain parts of witness’s testimony while rejecting others’. So it accepted the expert’s sagacious opinion that ‘firing twelve shells at Martic’s apartment’, had ‘created a significant risk of a high number of civilian casualties and injuries, as well as of damage to civilian objects’ because ‘civilians could have reasonably been expected to be present on the streets of Knin near Martic’s apartment and in the area’ (emphasis added). Such purely hypothetical inferences are highly characteristic of the Chamber’s argumentation. Since the hypothetical ‘significant risk’ that could have caused civilian casualties was enough to diagnose ‘deliberate firing at areas in Knin’, the Chamber was not troubled by any doubt when it declared this ‘finding’ ‘inconsistent with Rajcic’s explanation of the HV artillery orders’.
The Chamber repeated its mantra of ‘whole towns’ over and over again, but lacking proof on the ground, it turned to synonymy like ‘towns as such’, ‘towns themselves’ or ‘on the whole’. This did not help much, and resulted in peculiar formulations such as: ‘the Trial Chamber considers that even a small number of artillery projectiles can have great effects on nearby civilians’ (emphasis added). There are numerous episodes of the same type in the verdict; it would take hundreds of pages to discuss all of the cases of faulty conclusions.
There is one additional matter I would like to address. Apart from the dubious 200-metre standard, the Chamber deemed the panic among the civilians caused by the use of artillery to serve as proof of the criminal responsibility of the accused basing it on the expert’s Konings evaluations: ‘Expert Konings also testified generally about the harassing and frightening effect the use of artillery can have on civilians, causing fear, panic, and disorder’ (emphasis added). So the Chamber had classified Konings testimony as credible although it had heard that this expert equalized without turning a hair the shelling of Knin (which lasted a few hours) with the shelling of Sarajevo (which lasted over three years). The Chamber heard together with everybody who was present at the hearing – through whatever means – that Konings lost his temper, raging against at in that moment actual Israeli artillery shelling against Hamas in the Gaza strip, that he regarded as an assault on civilians. All quotes above originate from the transcripts of the Tribunal. This outrage of the expert Konings (a fellow countryman of the presiding judge Orie) against Israel’s behaviour in the Gaza Strip in 2009, is not documented in the transcripts. It has been, I assume, ‘redacted’; I heard it by chance through the session’s broadcast. But this ‘incident’ alone should have been ground enough to put the expert’s credibility in question. In fact, it can be seen as the substantiation of his incompetence as an expert in this field. Prior to that, he was incapable of understanding that the order to shell a ‘catholic church’ meant the police station of the Serb rebels and not a place of worship. This St Ante monastery at Knin was seized by the Serb-rebel special police and everybody but the expert of the prosecution would classify it, i.e. the VRSK special police headquarters where the counter assaults were still being planned and coordinated, as a legal target for the HV’s artillery shelling, as in fact the Chamber has done too. This expert played the central role in the passing of the sentence of imprisonment for Gotovina and Markac, though he was not helpful for defining the 200 metre margin.
This short review may perhaps help to explain the reasons behind the Appeal Chamber’s decision. It has been outlined from the layman’s standpoint and meant to address the general public in order to explain the evident shortcomings of the original sentence by Trial Chamber.
A proposal for critics of the Appeals Chamber’s judgment
Against this background, the decision of the Appeal Chamber can be better understood. Also, the very wise decision to take the touchstone, the ‘200-Metre Standard’, of the Trial Chamber’s argumentations as a guiding principle for its revocation might be better understood. It was a shrewd method to reduce the complexity. The Appeal Chamber’s judgment resembles an elegant mathematical formula. This might well be one reason why it is encountered with such a lot of misapprehension.
Since the five judges disagreed heavily concerning other question, this was the one finding that they reached unanimously: ‘The Appeals Chamber unanimously holds that the Trial Chamber erred in deriving the 200 Metre Standard’. It is perfectly clear why this unanimity was inevitable: ‘the Trial Chamber adopted a margin of error that was not linked to any evidence it received’ (emphasis added). About such an error of judgment there can be no disagreement. Also it is not just a formalistic pettiness as some critics tend to think. It was the Trial Chamber that made the unlawful artillery attacks crucial to its verdict and it was the Trial Chamber that pinned all charges to the alleged unlawfulness of the artillery attacks based on its impact analysis. Since the evidence it had received through the prosecution was not sufficient, the Chamber constructed its one standard of impact error for which it had received no evidence at all.
The Trial Chamber itself already rejected a big part of the prosecution’s allegations about forcible expulsion, or in the words of the Appeal Chamber, it ‘declined to characterise as deportation civilians’ departures from settlements targeted by artillery attacks which the Trial Chamber did not characterise as unlawful’. Since the Appeal Chamber has quashed the finding about the unlawful artillery attacks in its entirety, it consequently infers: ‘Absent the finding of unlawful artillery attacks and resulting displacement, the Trial Chamber’s conclusion that the common purpose crimes of deportation, forcible transfer, and related persecution took place cannot be sustained’.(96)
The Appeals Chamber refers to the Trial Chamber’s conclusions as ‘mutually-reinforcing findings’; if we take the diplomatic aspects of this formulation away, one would speak rather of circular conclusions. Essentially, the Trial Chamber declared the Croatian war council to be a session of JCE (joint criminal enterprise) because it concluded that there were ‘unlawful artillery attacks’ taking place in four towns, and it pronounced these attacks to be unlawful because they were designed by the JCE to force the transfer of Serb civilians. Such conclusions are not valid. So the Appeal Chamber concludes: ‘The Brioni Transcript includes no evidence that an explicit order was given to commence unlawful attacks, and Gotovina’s statement regarding a strike on Knin could be interpreted as a description of HV capabilities rather than its aims, especially in the context of general planning for Operation Storm which took place at the Brioni Meeting’. This means, of course, that the Trial Chamber didn’t have any evidence either. But it wanted to have a sentencing verdict and I suppose it is not too intrepid to guess that this had motivated the Trial Chamber to drawing invalid (circular) conclusions; to inventing unsound impact margin standards; to dropping the evaluation of the expert testimony from a retired general familiar with the responsibilities of military commanders, which was directly relevant for weighing Gotovina’s effort concerning the disciplinary measures (AT 132-134); and also to expressing itself more in a lyrical than in a judicial manner by stating that ‘within days of the discussion at Brioni, Gotovina’s words became a reality’.
One can now presume that the dissenting two judges in the Appeal Chamber shared such attitudes and that they met the plea by the prosecutor Brady, who said at appeals hearing 14.05. 2012: ‘Instead, just as the Trial Chamber did, this Chamber needs to take a holistic view based on all the evidence considered together and not examine the facts and the evidence in this deconstructed in an artificial way and today in this afternoon’s submission, what I would like to do is to put this picture, the evidence and the facts, back together again, as they were properly understood by the Trial Chamber’. (p. 167) The two dissenting judges might have taken ‘a holistic view’ disregarding the conclusive evidence put forth by the other three judges who obviously declined the advice ‘not [to] examine the facts and the evidence’. But what, in fact, is ‘a holistic view’? It’s an overall interpretation of the events and in this case it is the prosecutor’s completely flawed interpretation.
Some critics are arguing that if one takes the Trial Chamber and Appeal Chamber together, then five judges were for the sentencing judgment, so eventually the majority. This really cannot be accepted as a valid argument. But the question that ought to be put is why some judges at an international law court prefer holistic interpretation of events rather than conclusive evidence. I think that this has to do with the ambiguous character of the court established by the Security Council under the name ICTY.
The ambivalent concept of the ICTY
Founding the ICTY through the Security Council in 1993, its members followed the principles of international law as established since the Nuremberg trials, but they adopted the Charter selectively. This problem can be put aside here, but what is relevant in this context is that they were under the influence of the worldwide discourse concerning the dissolution of the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia and the subsequent wars. The outstanding feature of this discourse was its ethnicistic character. I can outline this problem only very roughly. Putting ethnicity in the foreground corrupts the whole complicated issue. This ethnicistic perception shows itself already in the denotation of the Court as the tribunal for the former Yugoslavia – a name that in every sense is wrong. It refers to the Yugoslav nations instead of to the political background of the war. So it suggests that the war that took place in that region was an ethnic or civil war. So gradually the idea emerged that all, or at least most of, the peoples were somehow engaged in the war or some ethnic conflict.
The prosecutors seemed to be getting nervous that they will have to issue charges only against the Serbs and thought obviously that they had to balance this out. But there is nothing to balance out; what should have been done was to take in account that nobody is charged because of her or his nationality but because of war crimes. The nationality of the accused is of secondary importance. Instead of changing its perspective, the prosecution tried to change the reality by issuing indictments against accused from other national groups. But it was also the error of the Court to pass such indictments, for example against Macedonian officials, as a matter of war crimes. It is a big difference if one writes ‘Seven convicted for the massacre of Srebrenica’ as opposed to ‘the Serbs perpetrated an act of genocide at Srebrenica in July 1995’ (cf. Ian Traynor, ’Croatia’s “war crime” is no longer a crime after UN tribunal verdict’, guardian.co.uk, Friday 16 November 2012). ‘The Serbs’ didn’t perpetrate any act of genocide and there is no formulation in the Court’s documents that would justify such reckless language. A war-crimes tribunal should be the place where this supercilious ethnicistic treatment of the conflict and the war finds its end. What counts at the Court, is the crime and not the nationality of the accused. In most cases, the judges of the ICTY did their job well, as did lawyers in the prosecutions regarding the Kosovo, Sarajevo and Srebrenica cases; partially also in the Vukovar case. It is the dimension of the crime that was in focus and not the nationality of the indicted. So in respect of the mentioned seven sentenced in the 2nd ‘Srebrenica Trial’ on 10 June 2010 – trial judgment pending appeal for six of the accused – the Chamber’s findings differentiate the grades of responsibility of the accused and convicted two of them (Ljubisa Beara and Vujadin Popovic) of genocide, extermination, murder and persecutions. Not even in the slovenly and tendentious indictment against Gotovina et al. was such a formulation as ‘Croatia’s ‘war crime’’ used. Instead the prosecutor writes in the final brief: ‘Now it should be noted first that no one is alleging that Croatia had a plan or policy to expel. It was the members of the JCE’ (T. 29025).
But referring to the case also by ‘Oluja’ created confusion, and this case was (mis)understood as a trial about the operation named ‘Storm’; since this endeavour was legal it cannot and it is not going to be put to any trial. This also has to do with irresponsible language. The gap between the sentenced perpetrators in relation to their nationality has causes that are not ethnic. It is the completely diverging characters of the warring parties; the party that was waging war and that was engaged in vast battlefields was carrying out its campaigns in a fundamentally different manner than the parties in resistance to this crusade. The scope of crimes done by the main belligerent with the headquarters in Belgrade cannot be balanced out by dubious indictments against commanders and leaders of the resistance parties, such as the recently acquitted Ramush Haradinaj. Though the court in The Hague was cautious in its language, in practice it givee in to the ethnicistic politics of balancing the national groups of the accused, with the disastrous consequence that now the sentenced war criminals are being counted according their nationality.
Now Zdravko ‘Tolimir was found guilty by the Majority of Trial Chamber II, Judge Nyambe dissenting, of genocide, conspiracy to commit genocide, murder as a violation of the laws or customs of war, as well as extermination, persecutions, inhumane acts through forcible transfer and murder as crimes against humanity’ (Press Release, The Hague, 12 December 2012). He was convicted because of the conclusive evidence of his criminal responsibility as the ‘right hand’ of Ratko Mladic – but not as a Serb.
‘The largest single ethnic-cleansing operation of the Yugoslav wars’ – such was the soundbite that was linked to Operation Storm (Operacija Oluja), from soon after the successful Croatian military operation was waged back in August 1995. That atrocities were carried out by Croatian soldiers and civilians during and after the operation has never credibly been disputed. But the attempt to paint Oluja as an ethnic-cleansing operation – indeed as an ethnic-cleansing operation larger in scale than the Serbian assaults on Croatia and Bosnia in 1991-1992 – has always been rightly contested. Yesterday’s acquittal by the Appeals Chamber of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) of Croatian commanders Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac for crimes against Serb civilians between July and September 1995, above all during ‘Operation Storm’, leaves the victims without justice, but represents a defeat for long-running attempts in the West to redistribute guilt from the aggressors to the victims.
Had the ICTY’s prosecution simply sought to indict, prosecute and punish Croats guilty of atrocities against Serbs in the period July-September 1995, it would no doubt have been successful, and the victims would have received at least some justice. Unfortunately, the prosecution attempted something more: to write the historical record of the wars of Yugoslav succession, in a manner that reflected the predominant perception of Western policy-makers. This perception was that, whereas the Serb side was responsible for the largest proportion of the crimes and killing, there was ultimately no fundamental difference in the guilt and actions of each of the sides during the war; it was merely a quantitative difference. In her published memoirs, Carla del Ponte, the Chief Prosecutor of the ICTY at the time when the original indictment against Gotovina was issued, explicitly equalised the blame of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman as the two individuals primarily responsible for the war (Carla del Ponte and Chuck Sudetic, Madame Prosecutor: Confrontations with Humanity’s Worst War Criminals and the Culture of Impunity, Other Press, New York, 2008, pp. 37, 87, 125). Del Ponte was less of an equaliser than some others, and did at least insist on indicting some Serb perpetrators for genocide, in the face of resistance from other senior prosecution staff. But she also became inveigled in diplomatic and propaganda games with Serbian government ministers, who put her under pressure to prove that the Tribunal was not ‘anti-Serb’.
Consequently, the ICTY prosecutors pursued a policy of indictments that would result in judgements that would support their politics. As I have written before, these indictments thus disproportionately targeted Croatians, Bosnians and Kosovo Albanians; the forces of the Serb side were responsible for well over 80% of the killing of civilians during the whole of the wars of Yugoslav succession, but their officials made up only 68% of indictees. Only six officials of Serbia or the rump Yugoslavia, as opposed to Bosnian Serbs, were ever indicted for war-crimes in Bosnia. The top Yugoslav military commanders and presidency members who led the assaults on Croatia and Bosnia in 1991-1992 (Borisav Jovic, Branko Kostic, Veljko Kadijevic, Blagoje Adzic, Zivota Panic and others) were never indicted. Conversely, the ICTY prosecutors indicted such high-ranking and prominent Croatian and Bosnian officials as former Croatian Army chief of staff Janko Bobetko, Bosnia’s two most important military commanders Sefer Halilovic and Rasim Delic, and Bosnian commander in Srebrenica Naser Oric. When Alija Izetbegovic died in 2003, del Ponte indicated that he might have faced charges had he lived. Unfortunately for the prosecutors, however, the courts stubbornly refused to uphold the picture the prosecution sought to paint: Halilovic and Oric were acquitted, and Delic was sentenced to a mere three years in prison, after the prosecution had sought fifteen. Bobetko was already near death when he was indicted, and died before being extradited.
The sorry story of the Operation Storm indictments and trials should be seen against this background. In Operation Storm, the Croatians were not trying to conquer anyone else’s territory; they were engaged in a defensive operation to free their own territory from occupation by troops controlled by a foreign state (Serbia); troops that were engaged at the time in armed aggression against a neighbouring state (Bosnia) and threatening to carry out a further genocidal act against its population, following the genocidal massacre at Srebrenica a month before. As I have written, Operation Storm was a successful case of genocide prevention that saved the Muslim population in the Bihac enclave of north-west Bosnia from experiencing the fate of the people of Srebrenica. Yet for those seeking to equalise, as much as possible, the guilt of the sides in the former-Yugoslav war, Operation Storm had to be presented as a gratuitous act of ethnic-cleansing by Croat perpetrators against Serb victims – equivalent to the Serb crimes of 1991-1992.
The indictees, Gotovina, Markac and Ivan Cermak were accused of being part of a ‘Joint Criminal Enterprise’ (JCE) whose ‘common purpose’ was ‘the permanent removal of the Serb population from the Krajina region by force, fear or threat of force, persecution, forced displacement, transfer and deportation, appropriation and destruction of property or other means.’ This accusation therefore paralleled the prosecution’s accusations of a JCE levelled against the top Serbian leadership, whose goals were ‘the permanent removal of a majority of the Croat and other non-Serb population from a large part of the territory of the Republic of Croatia’ and ‘the forcible and permanent removal of the majority of non-Serbs, principally Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats, from large areas of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina’. But Operation Storm had not involved the acts previously associated with ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia: the rounding up of civilians; their being made to sign away their property to the authorities; their imprisonment, torture and killing in concentration camps; their being bussed out of the area. Instead, at the time of Operation Storm, the Serb authorities themselves organised and ordered the evacuation of the Serb civilians in the face of the Croatian offensive; whatever their intentions, the Croatians never had the chance to organise their removal.
To attribute the exodus of Serb civilians to Croatian actions therefore required the prosecution to develop a new model of how ethnic cleansing occurs. The ICTY prosecutors therefore argued that the Croatians aimed and succeeded in bringing about the removal of the Serb population from the so-called Krajina by artillery bombardment. This was already a dubious proposition – towns in Bosnia had been shelled for years by Serb and Croat forces without their entire population fleeing overnight. The prosecution nevertheless argued – and the original ICTY Trial Chamber accepted – that the exodus of Serb civilians was caused by the bombardment, not by the orders given by the Krajina Serb authorities to evacuate. However, attributing the cause of the exodus to the bombardment was not enough to establish the existence of the JCE, in the absence of evidence that this had been the intent behind the bombardment. Since only the most ambiguous support could be found for the thesis in the statements of the Croatian leadership – above all, the minutes of the Brioni meeting of 31 July 1995 – the intent had to be deduced from the character of the Croatian artillery fire, and whether it appeared accurately to be directed at civilian targets. So the prosecution argued that the existence of a JCE could be deduced from the fact that the Croatian artillery had targeted civilian areas in the so-called Krajina, and that this bombardment succeeded in bringing about the exodus of the Serb population. But since the Croatian forces were engaged in a lawful military operation against enemy armed forces in control of those same civilian centres, the prosecution had to show that Croatian artillery fire was not simply a part of those operations. The existence of the JCE therefore stood or fell on an analysis of the accuracy of Croatian artillery fire. At The Hague on Friday, it fell like the house of cards it essentially was. Most of the judgement of the Appeals Chamber consists, somewhat surreally, of a lengthy analysis of Croatian artillery fire.
ICTY prosecutors have long demonstrated a confused understanding of the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Their indictments have tended to target ‘famous names’ and acts people in the West had heard of; hence the notorious Zeljko Raznatovic Arkan and Vojislav Seselj were indicted, instead of Serbian leaders less well known in the West, but whose responsibility for crimes was much greater. The accusation that the Croatian bombardment of Knin, the capital of the ‘Republic of Serb Krajina’, was a ‘war crime’ originated with the arch-appeaser Carl Bildt, who was the EU’s special envoy for the former Yugoslavia at the time of Operation Storm. It was made in the context of an EU strategy that opposed any military action against Serb forces – either on the part of the international community, or on the part of the Croatians and Bosnians – and that sought instead to achieve peace in the former Yugoslavia through collaboration with the regimes in Belgrade and Pale. Bildt’s loud condemnation, at the time, of the Croatian bombardment of Knin, and his suggestion that it was a war-crime for which Tudjman himself should be held responsible, may have stuck in the minds of ICTY investigators as they considered how to pick Croatians to indict. Yet Knin had suffered minimal damage and civilian casualties as a result of the bombardment, made in the course of a legitimate military operation to recapture the town. This was in stark contrast to Vukovar, which was wholly destroyed by Serbian forces in 1991, and for whose destruction nobody was indicted by the ICTY (though some were indicted for atrocities carried out against the patients at Vukovar Hospital after the town fell).
Seventeen years later, Bildt’s red herring regarding the bombardment of Knin has met its ignominious demise. Since the Appeals Chamber ruled that the existence of a JCE could not be deduced from the pattern of Croatian artillery fire, the central premise of the prosecution’s case was thrown out. And since Gotovina and Markac had been selected for indictment on the basis of this premise, the rest of the case against them collapsed with it: the Appeals Chamber ruled that they had either attempted to prevent crimes against Serb civilians and property, or had not had effective control of those Croatian forces that had committed them. Had the prosecutors not focused on a supposed JCE, but instead sought to indict Croatian perpetrators who could actually be definitely linked to actual killings, they would no doubt have succeeded.
The Appeals Chamber’s verdict has not exonerated the Croatian side of crimes carried out during and after Operation Storm; on the contrary, it explicitly refers to crimes against Serb civilians in its acquittal of Gotovina and Markac. These victims have not now received justice, and critics are right to point out that the ICTY has failed them. The failure should be attributed, however, to the prosecution’s flawed indictment, not to the decision of the Appeals Chamber.
Not all these critics have been ready to point out the converse: that long before this verdict, the ICTY had already failed the victims of Serbia’s aggression and ethnic cleansing against Croatia. Almost no official from Serbia, Montenegro or the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) has been prosecuted and seriously punished for crimes against Croatian citizens in 1991-1992. Of the three relatively minor JNA officers tried over the Vukovar Hospital massacre, one was acquitted (Miroslav Radic) and one freed after serving six and a half years in prison (Veselin Sljivancanin), while only the third received a lengthy punishment of 20 years (Mile Mrksic). Of those JNA officers or admirals indicted over the shelling of Dubrovnik, Miodrag Jokic received a seven-year sentence and was granted early release after three years; Pavle Strugar received seven and a half years and was released on compassionate grounds less than a year later; the indictment against Milan Zec was withdrawn; and Vladimir Kovacevic had his trial transferred to the Serbian courts. Yugoslav Army Chief of Staff Momcilo Perisic was sentenced to 27 years – not for his actions in Croatia in 1991-92, but in part for the rocket attack by the Krajina Serbs on Zagreb in May 1995. Otherwise, the ICTY’s punishment to date has spared Serbia and fallen on Croatia’s own ethnic-Serb citizens who collaborated in the aggression (Milan Babic and Milan Martic). No official of Serbia or the JNA has so far been convicted over the Serbian conquest and ethnic cleansing of the so-called Krajina in the first place – the crime that made Operation Storm necessary.
With the quashing of the Operation Storm sentences, the ICTY can be accurately said to have failed seriously to punish the officers on either side in the war between Serbia (including Montenegro and the JNA) and Croatia of 1990-1995. Whether, having failed to punish the Serbian officers who occupied Croatian territory, justice would have been better served had the ICTY at least succeeded in punishing some of the Croatian officers who defeated the occupation, is a moot point.
- Basque Country
- Central Europe
- East Timor
- European Union
- Faroe Islands
- Former Soviet Union
- Former Yugoslavia
- Marko Attila Hoare
- Middle East
- Political correctness
- Red-Brown Alliance
- South Ossetia
- The Left