Major news today for everybody hailing from the beautiful regions of ex-Yugoslavia (or interested in them or law) was that two out of three Croatian ex-generals were convicted for war crimes during the Operation Storm (aka “Oluja) in the Hague and give 24 (Gotovina) and 18 (Markac) years to think about it. Equally interestingly, there was also a post-humous indictment of Franjo Tudjman and other deceased then-Croatian leaders (Susak and Bobetko) for their involvement in what the Tribunal called ” a widespread and systematic attack directed against this Serb civilian population”. The reaction in Croatia has been dramatic with PM Jadranka Kosor denouncing the verdict, President Josipovic giving a more rational response and the crowds being sullen and even some engaging in rather self-destructive behaviour, too often seen in the region.
Despite the fact that the Tribunal is rightly and unanimously seen in the region as a flawed institution, with dubious procedures (e.g. occasional destruction of evidence) and with a whiff of political interventions hanging over its decisions, in this case any other verdict would seem like a perversion of justice: logically, more than 200,000 people (predominantly civilians) leaving their homes just does not happen without foul-play. And as some Croats and Serbs are fuming or celebrating it’s decisions it is worth reminding why in general and despite its shameful imperfections, the ICTY did and does play a beneficial role.
Its benefits are three fold: first it does bring criminals to justice (though not always, and that does not really help the victims), secondly it removes the perpetrators from their countries allowing some progress and, most importantly, it facilitates rebuilding of the ethnic links by individualizing blame. There is a huge benefit of having war elites brought to justice and removed from the public space in their own countries where they more often than not had considerable and pernicious influence (e.g. Vojislav Seselj).
The value of individualization of crimes cannot be overstated because of the simple fact that people and cultures in Serbia, Kosovo, Croatia and Bosnia were and to a large extent still are intertwined and generalisations on ethnic lines (such as expressed in the unfortunate title of the BBC article covering the story) can lead to disasters. Although both are incorrect, in practical terms it is one thing to say that “a nation” is guilty of heinous crimes when it is safely across an ocean and a different one if members of that nation represent half of your village population and live across the road. To an extent thanks to the ICTY we are able to say that it is Ratko Mladic that ordered an execution of more than 8000 Bosniak men in Srebrenica, perpetrated by this number of people from this-and-that place rather than be forced to say that it was “the Serbs” and be able to spin mendacious stories to gain elections or incite violence. Sadly, this all gets blurred for people who had to suffer from the hand of their next-door neighbour, or had their lives saved by, say, Gotovina. Finally, there is also blame to be borne by people who voted Milosevic, Tudjman and the others in. Yet, it is interesting how it is precisely the individualization of guilt that is denied by the (far) right across the region. So it is key that Croats not see this verdict as a verdict on Croatia in 2011, and that their priority remains living in 2011, rather than 1992 or 1995.
So on the more practical side of things, one can hope that this verdict will not make Croatia derail itself from progressing towards the EU, that Serbia will not revel in schadenfreude too much but do everything to capture Mladic and that people who suffered during this crazily pointless and tragic war, will be helped by their governments in building their future (preferably, together), rather than reliving the past.