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.
‘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.
The trial of Croatian General Ante Gotovina, who spearheaded the liberation of the Serbian-occupied areas of central Croatia in ‘Operation Storm’ in August 1995, began this week in The Hague. Gotovina is accused of playing a leading role in a Croatian ‘joint criminal enterprise’, whose purpose was, according to his indictment, ’the forcible and permanent removal of the Serb population from the Krajina region, including by the plunder, damage or outright destruction of the property of the Serb population, so as to discourage or prevent members of that population from returning to their homes and resuming habitation.’
Every Croatian democrat should be pleased that this trial is taking place. If Gotovina is innocent, then the trial should result in his acquittal and rehabilitation. If he is guilty, then his victims deserve justice and he should be punished. But either way, the trial will force Croatia to confront the dark side of its national-liberation struggle and the murderous nature of the regime of Franjo Tudjman that was in power while this liberation struggle was taking place. Not only did Tudjman sabotage this liberation struggle at every step (see postscript), but he discredited it with the campaign of murder and terror that he waged against Croatian citizens of Serb nationality. Though the Croatian Serbs have made a tremendous historical contribution to Croatia, they were treated as an enemy population rather than as a population to be liberated. This resulted in large-scale war-crimes, to which Croatia needs to face up if it is to become a fully democratic country.
The trial of Gotovina is therefore good for Croatia. As for Gotovina the individual: I do not know if he is personally guilty for the crimes that undoubtedly took place, or whether other individuals were responsible. But he is entirely unworthy of any sympathy. His selfish, cowardly attempt to escape being tried, and to become an international fugitive, threatened to derail Croatia’s accession to the EU until he was embarrassingly arrested in the Canary Islands in 2005. In any normal army with a modicum of dignity, a soldier is prepared to risk and, if need be, sacrifice his life for his country. But the governing ethos of the corrupt, criminal Tudjman clique was that the country existed to serve its interests and line its pockets. So it was entirely natural that Gotovina, as a typical representative of this clique, should be prepared to jeopardise Croatia’s chances of joining the EU in order to save his own skin. His behaviour may be contrasted with the patriotic readiness of another indicted Croatian general, Rahim Ademi, immediately to turn himself in to the Hague Tribunal. The judges will hopefully take the contrasting behaviour of Gotovina and Ademi into account in the event that either is sentenced.
I say this by way of a preliminary, for despite all the crimes against Serb civilians that accompanied Operation Storm, the fact remains that it was an entirely necessary, legitimate military action that should rightly be celebrated. Although the US under Clinton played a far from glorious role in the war in the former Yugoslavia, yet it deserves credit for giving Croatia the go-ahead for Operation Storm, without which the craven Tudjman would probably not have dared to order it. Operation Storm and its aftermath killed roughly betweeen 700 and 1,200 Serb civilians. But it 1) saved the lives of tens of thousands of Bosnian Muslims; 2) defeated the Great Serbian project; 3) liberated Croatia, allowing it to become a normal, independent state (rather than another Cyprus, which it would have become had Operation Storm not taken place); and 4) led directly to the Dayton Peace Accords, which belatedly ended the war in Bosnia. Moreover – and this is usually overlooked – Croatia was legally obliged to carry out the operation. Had Operation Storm not occurred, Croatia’s crime would have been much greater. Finally, although supporters of the Great Serbian cause have claimed that Operation Storm was ‘the largest ethnic-cleansing operation that occurred in the whole Yugoslav war’, not only is this untrue (the Serbian assault on Bosnia in 1992 was an ethnic-cleansing operation far larger in scale), but Croatia’s role in the exodus of at least 150,000 Serb civilians from the so-called ‘Krajina’ region was entirely subordinate and secondary to the Milosevic regime’s own role.
Operation Storm was an entirely defensive operation. Its immediate cause was the Serb conquest of the ‘UN safe areas’ of Srebrenica and Zepa in July 1995, followed by the Serb assault on the ‘UN safe area’ of Bihac and the surrounding Bosnian-government territory. The conquest of Srebrenica involved the genocidal massacre of 8,000 Muslims by Serb forces, out of a Muslim population of about 40,000. It provided further proof – if any were needed - that the international community was entirely unwilling to take action to protect ‘safe areas’ or Bosnian civilians in general. The Bosnian government had every reason to fear that, if the assault on Bihac succeeded, the 200,000 Muslim inhabitants of the Bihac pocket would have been subjected to an even larger genocidal massacre. At the same time, the Serb conquest of Bihac would have essentially won the war for Serbia and defeated both Croatia and Bosnia, resulting in the establishment of a Great Serbian state incorporating two-thirds of Bosnia and one-third of Croatia. This represented a deadly threat to both countries. In response to the Serb assaults, Tudjman and Bosnian President Izetbegovic signed the Split Agreement on 22 July, according to which, on the grounds of the ‘ineffectiveness of the international community’, the ‘Republic and Federation of Bosnia-Hercegovina called upon the Republic of Croatia to extend military and other assistance to their defence against aggression, especially in the Bihac area, which the Republic of Croatia has accepted.’
The ‘Republic of Serb Krajina’ was the name of the Serbian-occupation regime on Croatian territory. The UN General Assembly on 9 December 1994 resolved that it was ‘Alarmed and concerned by the fact that the ongoing situation in the Serbian-controlled parts of Croatia is de facto allowing and promoting a state of occupation of parts of the sovereign Croatian territory, and thus seriously jeopardizing the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Republic of Croatia’. Thus, the UN General Assembly itself recognised that the ‘state of occupation’ was ‘jeopardising’ Croatia’s ‘sovereignty and territorial integrity.’ The Krajina Serb leadership had failed to abide by the terms of the Vance Plan, on the basis of which Croatia had signed a ceasefire with the Krajina Serbs in January 1992, and instead made use of the UN presence to cement its separation from Croatia. It rejected the internationally proposed Z-4 Plan, which would have represented a Serbo-Croat compromise establishing Krajina as a state within a state in Croatia. The Croatian government had every reason to believe that there was no alternative to the use of force to restore its control over the occupied territory.
Yet Croatia also had a legal and moral obligation to launch Operation Storm. The Krajina Serb army was engaged in an offensive, from Croatian territory, to conquer the Bihac enclave of the neighbouring state of Bosnia. Had Croatia not acted to prevent this, it would have become an accomplice to this Serbian act of aggression against Bosnia, perhaps even guilty of failure to prevent genocide under international law. Whether or not these considerations entered into the minds of the Croatian leadership, they are undoubtedly reasons why Croatia should have intervened. Croatia’s action against the Krajina Serbs may be compared favourably to Lebanon’s failure to act against Hezbollah’s attacks on Israel, that provoked the recent Israeli assault on Lebanon.
Operation Storm resulted in the exodus of at least 150,000 Serb civilians. This was not a case of Croatia rounding up the Serb civilians and transporting them out of the territory; it was a planned evacuation carried out by the Krajina Serb leadership itself. As I do not expect the reader to take my word for this, I shall quote here Milisav Sekulic, a Serbian officer and member of the Krajina Serb General Staff at the time of Operation Storm. Sekulic writes in his account of the fall of Krajina, published in 2001:
At the [Supreme] Council of Defence [of the Republic of Serb Krajina] the worst possible decision was taken – for the evacuation of the population. It would be shown that that was worse even than the decision to capitulate. The Supreme Council [of Defence of the Republic of Serb Krajina] could have taken one of the following decisions. The first would have been: to have continued with the defence and to have, on the night of 4-5 August  organised its units and prepared the command for the action that needed to be taken in the following days. The basis for such an action would have been the taking of all possible measures and actions forseen by the plan, including action against the Croatian towns. An integral part of this option would have been to turn to UNPROFOR, the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, the Republika Srpska… [ellipsis in the original] The second decision could have been: to offer a ceasefire and accept negotiations with Croatia, through the mediation of the Security Council. However the negotiations went and however unfavourable they might have been for the RSK [Republic of Serb Krajina], the people would have remained on the terrain and its status would have been incomparably better than going into exile. The third possible decision would have been to have evacuated only that part of the population that was endangered at that time, and those were the parts of northern Dalmatia and the southern part of Lika. Unfortunately, the option that the Supreme Council of Defence took meant the evacuation of the entire civilian population, as well as the police and army, from the entire territory of the western part of the RSK. Those who took such a decision on evacuation must have known well and knew, that they had taken the entire people and army into exile. If this was not realised by certain members of the Supreme Council of Defence, present at the session was the commander of the General Staff of the Serb Army of Krajina, who certainly knew it. It was his obligation and duty to tell members of the council what it meant to take such a decision, to warn them, and that if it was nevertheless carried, to define it as it was envisaged – the evacuation of the people, police and army from the western part of the RSK.
Milisav Sekulic, ‘Knin je pao u Beogradu’ (‘Knin fell in Belgrade’), Nidda Verlag, Bad Vilbel, 2001, pp. 178-179.
Note that ’the western part of the RSK’ refers to the territory of Krajina proper, as opposed to the geographically separate and distant territory of Eastern Slavonia, which was on the border with Serbia. Note also that the commander of the Krajina Serb forces at the time was Mile Mrksic, who had been appointed by Belgrade shortly before to preside over the assault on Bihac, and who then presided over the evacuation of the Serb population.
This does not mean that Croatia was innocent in the exodus of the Krajina Serb population. According to the Hague indictments of Gotovina and of Mladen Markac and Ivan Cermak, the Croatian Army killed and terrorised Serb civilians and burned and plundered Serb homes and property, while Croatian broadcasts encouraged the Serb civilian population to leave. These are, of course, the charges of the Prosecution; it remains to be seen whether the Tribunal will convict the indictees. Nevertheless, Croatia undoubtedly encouraged the Serb exodus by brutal means. Had there been no evacuation by the Krajina Serb authorities, the death-toll would undoubtedly have been greater. But although the death toll of up to 1,200 Serb civilians was up to 1,200 too many, the lives of tens of thousands of Bihac Muslims were saved.
The Croatian victory and destruction of Krajina was the turning point of the war. Combined with NATO air-strikes against Bosnian Serb rebel forces later that month and further Croatian and Bosnian military victories, it led to the Dayton Peace Accords in November 1995 that ended the war in Bosnia. Prior to these defeats, Karadzic’s Bosnian Serb rebels were simply unwilling to agree to even the over-generous Contact Group Peace Plan, that awarded them 49% of Bosnia. Operation Storm hastened the end of a war that had seemed unending, and saved many more lives.
The US, too, played its part in this. Its military collaboration with Croatia, in the fields of training and intelligence, and above all the simple fact of its authorisation of the offensive, all helped make the success possible. The Western powers undoubtedly have much blood on their hands for their collusion in the Serbian genocide in Bosnia, but had the US not enabled Operation Storm, it would have been responsible for an additional act of genocide. The credit for this should not go to Clinton, who wanted nothing more than to go along with the Anglo-French policy of appeasing Milosevic and Karadzic, but to the principled US opposition represented by such individuals as Bob Dole, Marshall Freeman Harris, Steve Walker, Joe Lieberman, Frank McCloskey, Albert Wohlstetter, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perle and others, whose relentless pressure forced a reluctant Clinton to take belated action to counter the Serbian aggression.
In its ruling last year, the International Court of Justice ruled that the Srebrenica massacre, alone of all Serb massacres in the war, was an act of genocide. Had it not been for the Croatian Army and the US oppostion in 1995, Serb forces might last year have been found guilty of two genocidal massacres, not just one. This is one reason why Serbia, almost as much as Croatia and Bosnia, should be thankful for Operation Storm. As for Croatia and the US, they succeeded in preventing the genocide of a Muslim population. In these times, when being anti-American is often seen as fashionable and when the US is widely demonised as being anti-Muslim, this is a success that needs to be trumpeted.
Postscript: it would be bestowing undue recognition on Tudjman to describe him as having ‘led’ the Croatian struggle for independence; he was a traitor and a stooge of Slobodan Milosevic and the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA). Tudjman in 1990-91 sabotaged the plan of his own defence minister, General Martin Spegelj, to defeat the JNA through a pre-emptive strike, preferring to restrain Croatian resistance in the hope of appeasing and collaborating with the JNA and Milosevic; he refused to come to the aid of Slovenia when it was attacked by the JNA in June 1991, ensuring that Croatia would in turn enjoy no Slovenian military assistance when it was attacked; he rejected any collaboration with Ibrahim Rugova’s Kosova Albanians, telling Rugova to his face that Rugova should be talking to Milosevic, not to him; he refrained from besieging and storming JNA garrisons on Croatian soil until well after the Serbian aggression had begun, even arresting Croatian patriots who took such actions on their own initiative; he halted key military operations under pressure from the international community, including an operation to lift the JNA siege of Vukovar; he rescued the JNA from defeat in late 1991, halting the successful Croatian Army operation to liberate Western Slavonia and leaving Serbian forces in control of large parts of Croatia for another three and a half years; he maintained his ceasefire with Serbian forces in Croatia while Serbia and the JNA attacked Bosnia; his agents sabotaged the successful operation of his own, Croatian Army in October 1992 to sever the Serb forces’ northern corridor that linked Serb-occupied western Bosnia and central-Croatia to Serbia, because he wanted to partition Bosnia with Milosevic, even at the price of maintaining the Serb control of central Croatia; he attacked Croatia’s own Bosnian allies in the back in collusion with Croatia’s own Great Serbian enemies; he planned to hand over bits of Croatian territory to Milosevic and Karadzic in return for bits of Serb-held Bosnian territory; and he halted the successful operation to defeat Bosnian Serb rebel forces in western Bosnia in 1995, because he wanted to continue collaborating with Milosevic and to partition Bosnia. Croatia was liberated despite Tudjman, not because of him, and Tudjman was, more than any other individual, the architect of the partial Great Serb victory in the Bosnian war. Tudjman was Croatia’s Draza Mihailovic – a traitor, chauvinist and collaborator with the occupiers.
This article was published today on the website of the Henry Jackson Society.
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