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Justice delayed, deferred, denied: Injustice at the Hague in the Karadžić and Šešelj verdicts

MAY 2ND2016

At the end of March–more than two decades after their crimes–the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) found Radovan Karadžić, chief political leader of the Bosnian Serb nationalists during the wars and genocide of 1992-1995, guilty of war crimes and sentenced him to 40 years. It could be said that justice was delayed and deferred, if not outright denied. While the 70-year-old Karadžić will probably never leave the (surprisingly comfortable) confines of The Hague’s UN Detention Unit, the verdict concluded that his forces had committed genocide in only one case: the July 2015 massacre of more than 8,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) males in Srebrenica. The ICTY’s denial of genocide in other cases was greeted with dismay and indignation by Bosnians and others throughout the globe.

The following week, on 31 March, the ICTY’s reputation descended further, acquitting Vojislav Šešelj on three counts of crimes against humanity and six counts of war crimes. Šešelj was the leader of another ultra-right Bosnian Serb party, and like Karadžić, held various political offices and collaborated with military commanders such as Ratko Mladic to create a “Greater Serbia” at the expense of Bosniak and Croat populations. This map indicates the extent of their ambitions.

In an act of cultural genocide, Bosnian Serb forces directed led by Karadžić destroyed Sarajevo’s National and University Library (aka Vijećnica) during the 1425-day Siege of Sarajevo. The cello player in this 1992 photograph is Vedran Smailović, a Sarajevan who often performed at funerals during the lengthy siege. (Local musician Vedran Smailović plays in the partially destroyed Bosnia National Library during the war in 1992 in Sarajevo. Photo by Mikhail Evstafiev. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

UN secretary general Ban Ki-moon praised the Karadžić conviction as a “historic day” for international criminal justice. In a scathing commentary published two days later, British journalist Ed Vulliamy wrote, “I do not share this triumphalism, and take my cue from the survivors of Karadžić’s violence.” During the war, Vulliamy managed to cajole Karadžić into allowing him into the infamous Omarska camp, one of the more notorious and brutish of the hundreds of camps established by Serb forces. Vulliamy recalled the sight of “men, some skeletal, drilled across a Tarmac yard into a canteen where they gulped watery soup like famished dogs. The escorts bundled us out at gunpoint when we asked to enter the dark door from whence they had come – which turned out to be a factory of murder, torture and mutilation. Above the canteen, women were kept for systematic violation.” (Many Serb camps were established specifically for the purpose of systematic, mass rape.) Vulliamy bitterly observed that the ICTY’s verdict amounted to genocide-denial:

What happened in Višegrad on the river Drina, where thousands were butchered on a bridge, locked in houses and burned alive or kept in a rape camp was not genocide. What happened in the town of Foça where all Muslims were killed or expelled and another rape camp established was not genocide. What happened to the razed towns of Vlasenica, Bijeljina, Kljuć, Sanski Most, Brcko–I could go on–was not genocide. The total and systematic erasure of mosques, libraries, cultural and religious monuments across Bosnia was not genocide.

My city, Charlotte, is home to about 3,000 Bosniaks, and I have had the honor of working closely with this community. Mirsad Hadzikadic, Director of our university’s Complex Systems Institute, told me:

Giving a sentence of 40 years in prison to someone who participated in the development, overseeing, and brutal implementation of the idea of genocide will only come back to haunt those who influenced the reduction of the sentence from “life” to “40 years.” Subordinating moral values to practical, mundane, cynical politics will eventually undermine the societies that opted for such “pragmatization” of values. The corrosive effect of such moral compromises leaves societies defenseless against the barbarity of force.

Hamdija Custovic, Immediate Past President of the Congress of North American Bosniaks, asserted that, “when you talk about thousands of innocent civilians who were murdered and raped as a result of his command and orders,” 40 years is inadequate, regardless of Karadžić’s age. Custovic also pointed out that the travesties at The Hague are only one aspect of the betrayal of Bosnia and Herzegovina by “the West” from the early 1990s to the present:

It is also disappointing that he was not convicted of genocide in municipalities other than Srebrenica. At the same time, it is significant that he was convicted of 10 out of 11 charges, including the Srebrenica Genocide and Crimes against Humanity. The Hague Tribunal’s conclusion that the genocide in Srebrenica was orchestrated by the highest level of the so-called Republika Srpska government means that the legacy of what is now the RS entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina should be considered illegal and abolished.

The Republika Srpska or “Serb Republic” was carved out of Bosnia and given to Serb nationalists by the terms of the terms of the 1995 Dayton Agreements, thereby rewarding “ethnic cleansing.” The RS consumes half the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina; Karadžić served as its first president.

“This verdict,” concluded Custovic, “is an opportunity to make the case for abolishment of this modern day apartheid establishment in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” My friend was sadly unsurprised by the latest betrayals of Bosnia by the “international community.” As we approach the 21st anniversary of Srebrenica, it is worth remembering that this most infamous massacre was not inevitable, nor did the Yugoslav wars result from “age old hatreds” and intractable ethnic strife, as US news media ceaselessly argued at the time. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Rohde summarized the betrayal by NATO and the UN of the people of Srebrenica:

The international community partially disarmed thousands of men, promised them they would be safeguarded and then delivered them to their sworn enemies…. The actions of the international community encouraged, aided, and emboldened the executioners. … The fall of Srebrenica did not have to happen. There is no need for thousands of skeletons to be strewn across eastern Bosnia. There is no need for thousands of Muslim children to be raised on stories of their fathers, grandfathers, uncles and brothers slaughtered by Serbs. (David Rohde, Endgame: The Betrayal and Fall of Srebrenica (New York: Penguin, 2012), 351, 353.)

July 11, 2010: New graves being dug on the fifteenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre. Not all the remains of the victims have yet been discovered. (Photo by Paul Katzenberger, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

John Cox is associate professor of International Studies and History at UNC Charlotte, where he coordinates the Center for Holocaust, Genocide & Human Rights Studies. (Their Facebook group is open to anyone who would like to join.) Cox has written and lectured extensively on genocide, mass violence, racism and imperialism, and resistance. In February 2016 he published To Kill a People: Genocide in the Twentieth Century (OUP) and is currently researching resistance inside the Nazis’ Buchenwald concentration camp as well as the role of Jewish fighters in the defense of the Spanish Republic (1936-1939) — some of whom were later part of the Buchenwald underground.