This interview appeared in Bosnian translation in Dnevni Avaz on 12 January 2014.*
How real, if there is any basis for it at all, is the fear that Bosnia and the Bosniaks could be left outside of the EU due to the growing resentment in the EU towards Muslims in general ?
I believe the principal obstacles to Bosnia entering the EU are, firstly, the unresolved constitutional status of the country, its dysfunctional political order and the Sejdic-Finci question, and secondly enlargement fatigue among European policy-makers. Anti-Muslim prejudice may be an aggravating factor, however. EU membership for Bosnia and Serbia might actually accelerate the disintegration of Bosnia, as the West would lose leverage against the leaders of Serbia and the RS.
Bosnia-Hercegovina, in other words, must on no account enter the EU and must employ all means to prevent the entry of Serbia ?
I believe Bosnia’s future lies in the EU, and that the country and its citizens need the opportunities that membership offers. Bosnia has no future outside the EU if Croatia, Serbia and Montenegro are in. But Bosnians need to enter in full awareness of possible consequences. This should serve as an additional motive for preparing a resistance strategy to save the country from partition.
It looks as if the West has, regardless of that, already given up on Bosnia-Hercegovina.
The West gave up on Bosnia during the war of 1992-95, when it effectively engineered the partition of the country, and rescued the RS from defeat and destruction in the autumn of 1995. However, in the late 1990s and first half of the 2000s, there was a partial reversal of policy as the international community, via the OHR, particularly under Paddy Ashdown, took major steps toward the reintegration of the country. Unfortunately, that momentum was lost as Western leaders wrongly believed that the progress achieved could permit them to reduce their presence in, and supervision of the country. Now the EU and US have lost the will to push for the reintegration of Bosnia and are once again appeasing the separatism of the RS leadership.
That means that the fear of the collapse of Bosnia-Hercegovina is justified ? Will the West, nevertheless, react if it comes to that ? Should Bosnia count on such action ?
The experiences of 1992-95 should have taught Bosnians that they can never count on the West. A scenario can be envisaged whereby Bosnia and Serbia eventually join the EU; the RS then declares independence, and its independence is recognised by Serbia, Russia and maybe some other countries. Sanctions would be difficult to enforce against those within the EU. Right-wing Islamophobic opinion across Europe would support the RS. In such circumstances, why should we expect the West to take action, when it has failed to act to reverse the partitions of Cyprus or Georgia ? No: if Bosnians want to save their country, they will have to rely on their own strength.
But are the Bosnian Serbs really intending to declare secession ? That is still a risky move.
I believe the RS leaders will not go for secession in the short term, as the status quo suits them: they enjoy most of the benefits of independence, without having to take the risks involved with formal secession. So long as Bosnia and Serbia remain outside the EU, then the RS and Serbia will always be vulnerable to sanctions and isolation. But in the long run, when the right moment comes, I believe the RS will attempt secession. So Bosnians need to start preparing themselves right now to confront that threat.
You worked for the ICTY. How does that institution now look to you ?
The tribunal’s achievements have been poor overall, but they should not be dismissed completely. The recent convictions of Zdravko Tolimir and the Herceg-Bosna six were significant successes, and the reversal of Radovan Karadzic’s acquittal on one count of genocide was also positive. The acquittals of Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic represented a terrible failure of justice, but it is possible that the appeal against them will be successful. The ICTY’s failure to prosecute or convict the principal military and political officials of the JNA, Serbia and Montenegro for war-crimes in Bosnia remains its biggest disgrace. Nevertheless, the eventual conviction of Karadzic and Mladic will count for something, particularly if they are convicted on one, or ideally two counts of genocide. So there is a lot left to hope for from the ICTY. Anger at the acquittals of Momcilo Perisic, Stanisic and Simatovic has understandably led some Bosnians and friends of Bosnia to dismiss the ICTY’s verdicts as ‘political’, but this is a mistake as it undermines the legitimacy of the tribunal, and of any future convictions.
The UK is preparing to have elections. Could they bring about a change in the foreign policy of that state when it’s a question of Bosnia?
No; I believe that British policy toward Bosnia will remain the same regardless of which party wins the next election. Britain’s role in the Bosnian war is almost universally recognised as a disgrace, so neither Labour nor the Conservatives are likely to want to revert to the anti-Bosnian policy of the 1990s. But this has not stopped the Labour leadership from sabotaging effective British intervention over Syria, similar to the way that the Conservative government in the 1990s obstructed effective international action over Bosnia !
How, in your opinion, are Bosnia-Hercegovina’s neighbours behaving ? What are the real policies of Serbia and Croatia when Bosnia-Hercegovina is in question ?
Serbia’s policy toward Bosnia remains what it has been since the late Milosevic era – with variations in intensity – which is to preserve the country in its dismembered, dysfunctional state, and preserve the RS. However, I am deeply concerned that Croatia, which under Stipe Mesic pursued a positive policy toward Bosnia, is indeed now reverting to Tudjman’s policy of collaboration with Belgrade and the RS on an anti-Bosnian basis. In Croatia, as was the case with other countries in the region such as Hungary and Bulgaria, entry into the EU has removed restraints on bad behaviour, and the Croatian right-wing is on the warpath: as witnessed in the campaign against gay marriage and against the Cyrillic alphabet.
On the other hand, another cause for concern is the role being played by Dejan Jovic, who is Chief Analyst and Special Coordinator at the Office of the President of the Republic of Croatia. Jovic recently wrote a book review in the Croatian journal ‘Politicka Misao’, in which he praised a book by David Gibbs, ‘First Do No Harm: Humanitarian Intervention and the Destruction of Yugoslavia’, as ‘excellent, original and convincing’. This book is a propaganda tract that denies the genocide in Srebrenica and accuses the Bosniaks of provoking the massacre, and also accuses the Bosnian armed forces and government of having shelled their own civilians in Sarajevo, and of having deliberately increased their suffering during the siege, in order to blame it on the Serbs. Gibbs’s book regurgitates the Serb-nationalist interpretation, whereby Yugoslavia was destroyed, and Serbia victimised, by hostile Western powers. When the Croatian president’s chief analyst and special coordinator praises a book containing such views, Bosnia has to be afraid.
What is it about the anniversary of World War One that so arouses Serb feeling ?
According to the traditional Serbian patriotic interpretation, World War I was for Serbia a heroic national struggle against Austro-Hungarian and German imperialism, and straightforward war for self-defence and for the liberation and unification of the South Slavs. However, the reality is somewhat more complicated. It is true that Serbia by 1914 had experienced decades of bullying by Austria-Hungary, which sought at all times to subordinate it to Habsburg imperial interests. On the other hand, Serbia had its own expansionist goals directed toward Austro-Hungarian territory, particularly toward Bosnia-Hercegovina. The extreme-nationalist, terrorist organisation ‘Unification or Death’ (the ‘Black Hand’) was deeply embedded within the Serbian Army and exercised a great deal of influence over Serbian politics, and it was responsible for the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo in June 1914. Serbia was not to blame for the fact that World War I happened, as it was ultimately caused by the competing imperial interests of the great powers – Britain, France, Russia, Germany and Austria-Hungary, all of which were guilty. But an objective analysis of the reasons why the war broke out must necessarily challenge the traditional Serbian patriotic view of the conflict.
* The meaning of certain passages was altered slightly in translation and editing in the version published in Dnevni Avaz. These passages have been highlighted here.
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.
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.
- 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