The Karadzic trial and Bosnian realities, Open Democracy, 3 November 2009

Posted: December 12, 2009 in 2009, Bosnia, international justice
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The trial of the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is a test of justice and accountability over terrible crimes. But the trend of events in Bosnia itself also demands the international community’s urgent attention, says Martin Shaw.

The trial of Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Serbian nationalist regime in Bosnia in the early 1990s, resumed in The Hague on 27 October 2009. The accused initially refused to appear in court on the basis that he needed more time to prepare his defence, but announced in a letter to the presiding judge on 2 November that he would indeed be present to face the court at a procedural hearing the following day.

Karadzic is charged with genocide over the attempt “to permanently remove Bosnian Muslims [Bosniaks] and Bosnian Croats from the territories of Bosnia and Herzegovina claimed as Bosnian Serb territory” between 1992 and 1995, as well as over the infamous massacre at Srebrenica in July 1995. The other charges include extermination; murder; persecutions; deportation; inhumane acts; acts of violence the primary purpose of which was to spread terror among the civilian population; unlawful attacks on civilians; and the taking of hostages.

These can be seen not as a series of different crimes but as components of a single campaign of genocide. Indeed the charges potentially broaden the overall legal assessment of the Serbian genocide in Bosnia-Hercegovina, which in earlier judgments – like that of the International Court of Justice in February 2007 – has been restricted to Srebrenica; the importance of the charges against Karadzic is that this enables understanding that Srebrenica was only the most murderous moment in the three years during which Serbian forces systematically targeted the destruction of the non-Serb population in the areas they controlled (see “The International Court of Justice: Serbia, Bosnia, and genocide”, 28 February 2007).

The trial – which starts sixteen months after Karadzic’s arrest in Serbia in July 2008, following thirteen years in hiding there – is widely seen as the last major case of the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which is scheduled to begin winding down from the end of 2009 – despite the scandalous failure to arrest Karadzic’s fellow indictee Ratko Mladic, who commanded the Bosnian-Serbian forces at Srebrenica. The ICTY has had considerable success in arraigning secondary war-criminals of all nationalities, but no settling of the accounts of the post-Yugoslav wars of the 1990s will be complete until Mladic joins Karadzic in the dock. The fact that prime architects of Yugoslavia’s ethnic destruction in the 1990s – Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic’s (who died in March 2006, during his trial) and Croatia’s Franjo Tudjman (who died before he could be indicted) – escaped justice, means that the tribunal’s record will appear even more seriously flawed unless Mladic and Karadzic are successfully tried.

The new trial will doubtless rekindle the deep divisions which Bosnia opened in western publics in the 1990s. A reminder of these came on 29 October 2009 when Ed Vulliamy, the Guardian reporter who (with colleagues from the broadcaster ITN) exposed the Serbian concentration-camps at Omarska and Trnopolje in August 1992 – published an open letter to Amnesty International to protest against its invitation to the radical academic Noam Chomsky to give the annual Amnesty lecture in Belfast on 30 October 2009. Chomsky, says Vulliamy, has encouraged the “revisionist” view which denied the character of the camps (even if it was others such as Thomas Deichmann, writing in Living Marxism magazine, who were the direct authors of this denial [see Ed Vulliamy, “Poison in the well of history”, Guardian, 15 March 2000]).

In 2005, Chomsky told a Guardian interviewer: “Ed Vulliamy is a very good journalist, but he happened to be caught up in a story which is probably not true.” Vulliamy reminds Amnesty that he directly witnessed the situation he described, and went on to collect hundreds of testimonies; he accuses the human-rights organisation of “giving comfort” to Mladic and Karadzic through its invitation to Chomsky.

The logic of Dayton

The political realities on the ground in Bosnia put some of these controversies in perspective. Radovan Karadzic may be in the dock in The Hague, but the Serbian statelet of Republika Srpska (RS) which he founded is firmly entrenched. The first phase of the Serbian campaign in 1992-93 left RS in control of a formerly mixed territory, from which 90% of the non-Serb population (principally Muslims and Croats) were expelled through the brutal methods described in the ICTY’s indictment of Karadzic.

The Serb forces failed fully to defeat Bosnian and Croatian forces, but the diplomatic settlement of November 2005 – the Dayton (Ohio) peace accords, agreed by Bill Clinton (the United States president), Slobodan Milosevic, Franjo Tudjman, and Alija Izetbegovic (Bosnia’s president) – left the Serbian nationalists in control of the RS, even if it was reincorporated into a nominally unified and internationally supervised Bosnia-Herzegovina. The international regime was supposed to support the return of refugees to RS (as to Croatian- and Bosnian-controlled areas). In the event, the small number of returns achieved have not altered the outcome of the genocidal war: Serbs today form almost 90% of RS’s population.

The Dayton settlement thus (in Marko Attila Hoare’s words) “established a Bosnia-Hercegovina that was more partitioned than united”, and subsequent developments have reinforced the partitionist logic. For every year that the Dayton settlement persists it brings Bosnia another step closer (Hoare again) “to full and complete partition. Every year, Republika Srpska further consolidates itself as a de facto independent state; the Office of the High Representative [OHR; Bosnia’s international overseer] declines in power and authority; the international community’s will and ability to coerce the Republika Srpska are that much weaker; the already dim prospect of Bosniaks and Croats returning to Republika Srpska recedes further; and the share of the Bosnian population that can remember the unified, multinational country that existed before 1992 becomes smaller.”

Even in late 2007 it was possible for Peter Lippman to argue that the international regime was having some success in integrating the police and the army into a unified Bosnian force (see “Crisis and reform: a turnaround in Bosnia?”, 18 December 2007). Two years on, the low-key current international efforts to move Bosnian politicians towards reform are completely deadlocked. Serbian secessionist impulses – part-cause and part-consequence of this situation – are never far from the surface. Moreover the current RS administration of Milorad Dodik is growing in its defiance of the international regime and (a linked matter given the statelet’s provenance) its denial of the very crimes of which Karadzic is accused.

Dodik, who has denied that genocide was committed at Srebrenica, further provoked the non-Serb population of Bosnia in September 2009 by pointedly denying one of the worst Serbian atrocities of the war: the massacre of seventy young people in a square in Tuzla in May 1995. (In this context, Ed Vulliamy is right to say that the questioning of well-documented atrocities such as the concentration-camps by western commentators is no academic matter; and that Noam Chomsky’s attitude to these issues raises questions about Amnesty’s choice of lecturer).

Against this background, even a conviction in the Karadzic trial – assuming the accused’s spoiling tactics are unsuccessful – will be a hollow victory for his victims. The danger, Hoare suggests, is that “however monstrous the injustice that Bosnian partition would represent, with every year that passes, the injustice is further forgotten by the world and full partition – like death – draws nearer. We need only look at the other injustices that have become realities on the ground: the three-way partition of Macedonia in 1912-13; the dispossession of the Armenian population of Anatolia; the dispossession of the Palestinian population of present-day Israel – these are realities on the ground” (see “Bosnia: weighing the options”, Bosnian Institute, 13 October 2009).

The cost of failure

It is difficult to gainsay this bleak assessment of the historical record: partitions have always involved appalling injustices which have rarely been reversed (see Sumantra Bose, “The partition evasion”, 23 August 2007). The Indian partition of 1947 is one of the worst examples. For a century, western “statesmen” have been tempted to draw lines on maps and consign hundreds of thousands of people to suffering; all the more reason by now to have learned from these experiences.

If the partition of Bosnia is indeed steadily becoming irreversible, this should cause alarm across Europe. It should not be assumed that Balkan politicians’ need for European recognition and funding will always inhibit radical moves that would once again destabilise the region. The integration of southeastern Europe into the European Union and western institutions has not proceeded so far as to provide full insurance against a new Bosnian – or even wider Balkan – war.

The situation of Bosnia, and especially of its Bosniak majority areas, is – under the pressure of Serbian separatism – getting more serious. It is time for western politicians, having accepted responsibility for Bosnia, to consider and take the steps necessary to prevent this already divided country from moving towards new and dangerous schisms.

Peter Lippman also argued in 2007 that “nationalist leaders – Serbs, Croats, and Bosniaks” had a responsibility “to show that they are serious about developing the reforms that would allow Bosnia & Herzegovina to exist as a functional state that can join the European Union on its own.” But it is even more urgent that “the international community and the OHR maintain a robust stance with regard to these reforms, in order to prompt and encourage Bosnian leaders to see them through.” The Radovan Karadzic trial is a reminder of the worst that could happen if they fail.

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