War crimes tribunal still invaluable despite Seselj ruling

Sarajevo: Observers feel court has important role to play in shining light on past

I first encountered the leader of the Serbian Radical Party, Vojislav Seselj, at a political rally in Bosnia in 1996 just after the end of the war, which tore Yugoslavia apart.

Elections had been called following the signing of the Dayton peace agreement and I was there as a monitor.

In mid-translation of Seselj’s stump rant my Muslim colleague blanched and muttered we should leave. As we drove away he explained that Seselj had said “of course the Baliya [derogatory slang for Muslims] were welcome back to their homes , but they would leave again in body bags”.

This I later learned was small potatoes compared to some of Seselj's choicer statements such as the "need to cleanse Bosnia of Muslims", threatening non-Serbs with rape (but not Albanian women because "they are too ugly for Serbian men"), or ordering his men to "spare no one" in Vukovar (Croatia). And yet on March 31st the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia acquitted this man on all nine counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity.


‘Nationalist ideologies’

In the verdict Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti stated: “The propaganda of nationalist ideologies is not criminal.” Unsurprisingly, to many people in this region, the tribunal seems to have a tin ear, to say the least.

Refik Hodzic, director of communications at the International Center for Transitional Justice, found the reasoning provided by the two judges in the Seselj case – such as that buses used for forcible deportations of civilians from Vukovar were in fact a “humanitarian gesture by Serb paramilitaries” – nothing short of absurd. He is adamant this verdict would be seen as an anomaly in the jurisprudence of the tribunal and that it will be quashed on appeal.

The Seselj judgment followed hard on the heels of the previous week's verdict on the so-called Butcher of Bosnia, Radovan Karadzic, who was indicted on eight out of nine counts including genocide in Srebrenica, crimes against humanity and customs of war. He was given a 40-year sentence, but not life.

For Srebrenica survivor AH, who lost both grandfathers, four uncles and many cousins in Srebrenica, the sentence is not a matter of years, and how old Karadzic is, or whether he will he spend his whole life in prison. “That is not the point,” she said, “I am disappointed because with this sentence Europe again underestimated his crimes and all sufferings that my people and my family went through. It should be a life sentence, but even that I don’t find fair enough.”

AH's last contact with her father was a Red Cross letter from within the so-called UN safe area of Srebrenica, in which he wrote "we don't have food and clothes, but I am happy, because I am very sure that soon we will be together again and the war will stop". But, AH said, "he never came and I never met my brother".

This is just one of 8,000 stories of the dead and missing from the Srebrenica genocide.

And yet statistical analysis of sentencing by Barbora Hola, assistant professor at the Department of Criminal Law and Criminology at the VU University of Amsterdam, suggests there is a clear pattern where genocide verdicts bring harsher sentences than crimes against humanity, which in turn receive harsher sentences than breaches of customs of war and so on.

Political masters

Perhaps more interestingly, principal commanders in the field receive slightly longer sentences than their equivalent political masters for the same crimes.

This has not prevented Balkan conspiracy theorists – a regional religion – from seeing any particular verdict as a sign the court is pro-EU, anti-Serb, anti-Croat, or blind to Muslim suffering.

It also provided a platform for all shade of political leaders to pontificate, perhaps the most incongruous of which was a statement by the long-standing leader of the Montenegro regime, Milo Djukanovic. He said of the Seselj verdict that he wished every man to be free rather than in jail – a seeming empty platitude aimed at Serb supporters, if it wasn't for the fact that he has kept a high-level political opponent in jail since December without indictment.

But there are those who, like Hodzic, believe that in spite of its failures, “the ICTY is the best thing that happened to us since 1991.

“The evidence collected by the tribunal will be invaluable for the recovery of our societies. “There have been mistakes, sure, but they must not cloud what is a monumental contribution to our reckoning with the past. When we are ready to reckon with it, that is.”