Considering the decision of the ICTY Appeals Chamber to acquit Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac
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.
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