Muslim Wire

Karadzic is a nasty piece of work, but is he really guilty of genocide?

Posted in Politics, Society by muslimwire on October 29, 2009

Stephen King

ONE of the biggest and most keenly awaited trials of the past half century opened on Monday but without the benefit of the defendant. The infamous Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serbs’ political leader during the Bosnian war of 1992-’95 which left at least 100,000 dead, refused to attend because he said he needs more time to prepare his defence.

Neither Karadzic nor any of his legal advisers was present at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) when the South Korean judge started the hearing, which was adjourned after 15 minutes.

We have been here before: the trial of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic should remind the UN how such carefully staged showpieces can turn into embarrassing debacles. He also tried to string things out at his trial — and largely succeeded — before finally committing suicide in his prison cell.

But are the proceedings in The Hague really a criminal trial, or more of a therapy session for the western powers? Certainly, many in the media seem to derive a perverse pleasure in Nazifying the Serbs: perhaps it makes them feel better about themselves.

But by seeking to brand the Serbs as genocidal, some of the complexities of the former Yugoslavia’s civil wars are being lost. Perhaps it was ever thus: history is written by the victors. And often this appears to be done for the best of motives, a desire to bolster the doctrine of humanitarian intervention. But at what cost?

To be absolutely clear: no one would want to carry a torch for Radovan Karadzic. He was and is a nasty nationalist, and a deluded one at that. He bears responsibility for some truly horrific events.

But in a region where petty hatreds abound, he is scarcely alone in that and the campaign to demonise him and, it often seems, the Serbian people stinks of political opportunism.

The whole notion of “war crimes” is a slightly troubling one. I’m very far from a pacifist but can war ever be waged according to the rules of cricket, I wonder? And have you noticed how it’s always the proverbial “them” — those from the developing world and the slummier parts of Europe — who are the ones accused of it? Isn’t the very idea behind the ICTY deeply political? The UN set it up in 1993, the first war crime tribunal since the end of World War II. It’s as if there had been some shortage of wars in the intervening 45 years.

What there has been a shortage of since the end of the Cold War are great causes for the high-minded to get their teeth into. Some in the media, it seems, sought salvation and a new sense of moral purpose via a foreign crusade in the Balkans. But in a media age which requires easily identifiable goodies and baddies, how to represent the internecine nature of the Balkan wars?

For sure, the Serbs committed some awful atrocities — but so did the Croats and Muslims. Civil wars are like that. No one has a monopoly on hate. But in order to justify intervention, it was necessary to present some of the worst outrages in a distorted light. The events in Srebrenica in July 1995, over which Karadzic is now being tried, are a case in point.

Certainly, very many Bosnian Muslim soldiers and civilians were killed there. But were these killings acts of evil, or acts of a bloody civil war?

Srebrenica first came to international attention in the summer of 1993, although the strategically important area had long since been fought over. The region had initially been seized by the Bosnian Serb army in 1992, but was retaken later by the Bosnian Muslim army who, by any standards, conducted a brutal campaign against nearby Serbian villages.

In early 1993 the Bosnian Serbs launched a counter-offensive and captured much of the surrounding area. As the Serbs advanced, and Srebrenica became packed with Muslim refugees, the UN declared the town a “safe area”.

The town remained surrounded by Bosnian Serb troops. According to the UN Security Council resolution that established safe areas, it should have been demilitarised. Srebrenica, however, remained fully armed.

In July 1995 the Bosnian Serb army began to advance into the surrounding area after sustained shelling from the town and encountered little resistance. Thousands fled to a nearby UN base. Women and children were evacuated from the town while the remaining men of military age were detained.

Some men engaged the Serbs in fighting, and a large number of soldiers broke out of the enclave and fought with the Serbian army. But there is no doubt that some of the Bosnian Muslim prisoners of war were executed in cold blood. Pretty horrible by any standards but does that constitute premeditated genocide? That’s a bit harder to prove.

The figure of 8,000 murdered is often quoted, but it is a very rough estimate and many of those killed died in battle.

Furthermore, the actual definition of genocide as employed by the ICTY is not altogether straightforward. When we think of genocide we tend to think of the intention to destroy such a substantial part of a group or race as to affect its entirety. In order to establish genocide the ICTY first argued that the Bosnian Serb army had targeted all of the Bosnian Muslim inhabitants of Srebrenica and the surrounding area, some 40,000 people, not just those murdered. This leads to a strange situation whereby those who were not murdered contribute to the verdict of genocide.

IT THEN argued that even the numbers of the population under threat did not capture the importance of the Muslim community in Srebrenica, and that the strategic importance of the area and the prominence of the safe area internationally rendered the action genocide, as the Bosnian Serbs intended it to be an example to all Bosnian Muslims.

So, in order for the murders Karadzic is charged with to be classified as genocide, the ICTY — if past form is anything to go by — will rely on a complicated definition that is not dependent on showing either intent to commit genocide or on the numbers of people actually killed.

The upshot of this highly tendentious legal process has been to distort perceptions of both the past and the present. Endlessly comparing the Yugoslavian civil war to the Holocaust risks denigrating the unique historical crime that was the killing of six million Jews alongside countless other leftists, gays, gypsies and disabled people.

From Kosovo in 1999 to the Congo in 2005, Srebrenica is held up as conclusive proof that the west is morally obliged to intervene militarily in conflict situations. But the evidence that Srebrenica represents proof of a planned campaign of genocide is actually rather shaky.

The murders there — on a vast scale, unquestionably — should be understood in the context of a complicated and very brutal civil war which occurred as three groups fought to gain control of different pieces of the Bosnian jigsaw. To reduce it to a genocide committed by just one of those three groups is unwise, unhistorical and unfair.

But don’t expect that to stand in the way of a guilty verdict should the latest trial ever come to a conclusion.


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