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.
‘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.
Just over a year ago, I wrote here of the mysterious phenomenon of the Muslim Nazi division, named ‘Handzar Division’ after the Bosnian SS division of World War II, that, according to supporters of the Great Serbian cause, was established in Bosnia by the regime of Alija Izetbegovic during the 1990s. Evidence for the existence of this division, its size, composition and origins, was taken from a single article in a Western newspaper, the Daily Telegraph, by British journalist Robert Fox, who based his information on the testimony of unnamed UN officials. Fox’s article was glaringly inaccurate – he described Bosnian presidency member Ejup Ganic, for example, as ‘foreign minister’ – but was nevertheless assumed by the supporters of Great Serbia to be gospel truth. Indeed, they even embellished it, attributing claims to Fox that he had never made – such as that Izetbegovic himself had founded this ‘Handzar Division’. I concluded that ‘Monty Python is a much better source for accurate historical information’ than the Great Serbia supporters in question.
It has taken nearly a year for a rebuttal of my article to be attempted, by the amateur historian Carl Savich of the Serb-nationalist website Serbianna. Based on Savich’s sorry effort, I can only feel that my assertion, that Monty Python is a much better source for accurate historical information than Savich and his fellow Serb nationalists, has been entirely vindicated. But before I show why this is so, I’d first like to take note of Savich’s attempt at cutting irony, directed at me, when he says:
‘It appears as though the existence of the reformed Handzar Division was not much of a secret. It was only a secret to the befuddled, lost, and delusional Hoare. This is what occurs when Monty Python’s Flying Circus is the source of your historical research. Hoare should spend more time on analyzing the war crimes trials at the Hague and less time on watching dated TV reruns. Moreover, for history to have any value or merit, objectivity and neutrality must be the goals. Delusional fantasy and ideological propaganda constructs have no place in serious scholarship and history. Monty Python should not be the source for historical information on the civil wars in Bosnia-Hercegovina.’
Savich is responding to my quip about Monty Python by accusing me of actually basing my historical research on Monty Python re-runs. Pretty funny, huh ?
This is, in fact, a rather unfortunate line of humour for Savich to employ. Readers will have noted the image at the start of this post, which shows a cover of the Sarajevo youth magazine Novi Vox, dated October 1991. The cover shows a soldier of the Handzar Division treading on the severed heads of the Bosnian Serb leaders, including Radovan Karadzic, under the headlines ‘The Handzar Division is ready’ and ‘The Fourth Reich is coming – Welcome !’ Savich reproduced this image in his response to me. He writes:
‘In October, 1991, the Bosnian Muslim magazine Novi Vox in Sarajevo, in issue no. 3, well over half a year before the civil war broke out in 1992, published a front-cover illustration showing a Bosnian Muslim Nazi SS officer in the Handzar Division stepping on the decapitated and bloody heads of Serbian leaders, including Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic. The caption read: “The Handzar Division is ready!” Another headline announced: “The Fourth Reich is coming—Welcome!” This revival of Bosnia’s Nazi and SS genocidal past was censored, suppressed, and covered-up in the U.S. and the Western media.’
What Savich fails to tell his readers, either because he is dishonest, or – more likely - because he is simply ignorant, is that the magazine in question, Novi Vox, was a satirical magazine of the alternative youth movement in pre-war Sarajevo, similar in character to the US’s The Onion, or to the satirical news sections of the UK’s Private Eye. In the words of cultural anthropologist Ivo Zanic, in his magisterial Flag on the Mountain: A Political Anthropology of War in Croatia and Bosnia, Saqi Books, London, 2007 (pp. 332-333):
‘Even in cases that were pushed too hard or that were quite tasteless, Vox‘s constructions contained enough elements for anyone who approached them with minimal common sense to be able without difficulty to realise that this was satire, in other words, an imagined reality that criticised the real reality. Thus its many agendas and declarations are readable, undoubtedly witty, identifiable ironic commentaries on real agendas, actions and declarations by the political figures of the time, particularly Karadzic’s SDS of Bosnia-Herzegovina.‘
Apparently, however, the ‘minimal common sense’ needed to realise that Vox was a satirical magazine was not possessed by Savich, who treats it as though it were a simple statement of Bosnian Muslim intent. Just imagine someone writing about British politics in the 1980s, who used Spitting Image as their source for what Margaret Thatcher’s policies were, without realising that it was a satirical comedy. Well, that is what Savich has done in respect to Alija Izetbegovic and Vox.
Savich’s suspicions should have been aroused by the fact that the price of the magazine, on the cover he reproduces, is given not only in dinars, the Yugoslav currency, but also in the fictional currency ‘bukvi’, or bukvas. In Zanic’s words (pp. 335-336):
‘Vox regularly printed its price not only in legal Yugoslav dinars but also in the fictitious bukvas. The joke was clear to anyone with half a brain: it referred to the proposal that the currency in Slovenia be called the lipa, linden, because this tree in Slovenia had the status of national symbol, and bukva would be the Bosnian equivalent. This irony, or self-deprecation, for the word bukva in the South Slav lands metaphorically means thickhead, and there are versions such as bukvan, blockhead, and the very common colloquial phrase ‘thick as a bukva‘, implying someone rather slow, good-natured and harmless, a likeable fellow in fact, as well as a number of other phrases and proverbs.’
To repeat: ‘The joke was clear to anyone with half a brain.’ Further comment on Savich’s scholarly competence, and on the tactical wisdom of his attempt at irony regarding research based on comedy, would be superfluous (NB although he describes himself as a ‘historian’, Savich has no historical qualification higher than a Master’s degree; he does not appear ever to have held an academic post, published a book or an article in an academic journal, or visited an archive).
‘The Bosnian Muslim Army and the Bosnian Muslim Government of Alija Izetbegovic and Ejup Ganic sought to re-establish the World War II Nazi Waffen SS Divisions formed out of Bosnian Muslims, the 13th Waffen Gebirgs Division der SS “Handzar/Handschar” and the 23rd Waffen Gebirgs Division der SS “Kama”, formed in 1943-45 by Heinrich Himmler. The London Daily Telegraph of December 29, 1993, in the news report by Robert Fox in Fojnica, “Albanians and Afghans Fight for the Heirs to Bosnian’s SS Past”, has reported that the Bosnian Muslim forces had formed a new and updated version of the World War II Nazi “Handzar” SS Division, made up of about 6,000 troops and supported by the Muslim leadership.’
This is what I wrote, in response to the Serb nationalists and their supporters, like Savich, who have cited Fox’s article:
‘The Bosnian SS Division ‘Handzar’ (or ‘Handschar’) was a unit that existed during World War II, and it is conceivable that there really was a handful of Muslim zealots who, during the recent war, fought on the Bosnian side and grandiloquently named themselves the ‘Handzar Division’ after this historic unit. It is indicative, however, that no other journalist or anyone else seems to have noticed the existence of a unit of ‘up to 6,000 strong’ that named itself after the SS and that was, according to Fox, officered by Albanians and trained by mujahedin veterans from Afghanistan and Pakistan.’
In attempting to rebut me, Savich draws from the documents of the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Of all his earlier claims about the recreated Handzar Division, the only one for which he can find any corroboration at all is the claim that some sort of unit called the ‘Handzar Division’ really existed in Bosnia in the 1990s (and this is not an assertion I ever denied; as I wrote, ‘it is conceivable that there really was a handful of Muslim zealots who, during the recent war, fought on the Bosnian side and grandiloquently named themselves the “Handzar Division” after this historic unit.’)
Other than that,
1) Although Savich previously claimed that the recreated ‘Handzar Division’ was made up of ‘about 6,000 troops’, it now transpires, according to the evidence he provides, that the ‘Handzar Division’ was a ‘small unit’; so small, in fact, that it was merged with other units as part of a policy ‘of making larger units out of smaller ones’. Indeed, although Savich’s ICTY source does not provide any figure for the ‘Handzar Division’s' troop strength, the unit is listed alongside other small units that range from about 30 for ‘Cedo’s wolves’ to 150 for the ‘Prozor Independent Battalion’. So it seems we really are talking about a handful of zealots, rather than an actual division.
2) The evidence Savich cites completely fails to substantiate his earlier claim, that Izetbegovic and Ganic had had anything to do with the formation of this ‘Handzar Division’.
Savich now claims: ‘This evidence confirms conclusively that the Bosnian Muslim Government of Alija Izetbegovic and the Bosnian Muslim Army recreated and reformed the Bosnian Muslim Nazi SS Division from World War II.’
This is simply a bare-faced lie, something that will be clear to anyone who reads his article and tries to find the supposed ‘evidence’ (the Bosnian Army, it should be said, was in the habit of incorporating into its ranks independent or autonomous units formed by local strongmen, as well as those of the foreign mujahedin and Bosnian Croat nationalists).
3) The evidence Savich cites completely fails to substantiate Fox’s claim, which he endorsed, that the recreated ‘Handzar Division’ had been trained by mujahedin from Afghanistan and Pakistan.
4) The ICTY’s judges, as cited by Savich (‘Prosecutor vs Sefer Halilovic: Judgement’, 16 November 2005), do not claim to know who formed, named or trained this ‘Handzar Division’, or how many troops it contained. Based on witness testimony, they say only that the unit was made up of Albanians and that its commander’s nickname was ‘Dzeki’. Based on the evidence presented to them, they conclude: ’The Trial Chamber has not been furnished with evidence regarding the composition of this unit’. The ICTY’s standards of documentary evidence are, it would seem, somewhat more strict than those of Savich and his pals at Serbianna.
What we have here, is a case of a number of Serb nationalists and their fellow travellers, who have made wild claims in an attempt to discredit the former Bosnian regime of Alija Izetbegovic, in order to justify the genocidal campaign for a Great Serbia that they supported. When challenged to provide evidence for their claims, they find themselves unable to do so, so the claims in question shrink accordingly, to the point where they effectively disappear.
Update: A closer examination of one of the documents cited by Savich, the Halilovic trial transcript of 21 February 2005, #050221ED, reveals the following testimony about the troop size of the ‘Handzar Division’:
’5 Q. And then which soldiers came?
6 A. All the units that were there, Cedo’s Wolves, the 2nd Independent
7 Battalion, Handzar’s Division, Zuka’s men, and all the others. In all,
8 there were 100 to 150 soldiers.’
It would seem that the ‘Handzar Division’, confidently described as numbering ‘about 6,000 troops’ by our friend, does indeed turn out to be a bit smaller when the available evidence is examined closely…
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