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The crime, the time, and the politics of ICTY justice

Radovan Karadzic is my relative, on my mother’s side. For years, I felt uneasy about that and my vehement public opposition to the war put me at odds with many of my relatives.

Gordana Zivkovic, 1995. Courtesy of Marko ZivkovicThe former President of the Republic of Srpska para-state, Radovan Karadzic, was recently convicted of a joint criminal enterprise and crimes against humanity committed during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1990s, including the siege of Sarajevo, the campaign of ethnic cleansing, mass killings and detention of Bosnian Muslims and Croats, and the kidnapping of UN peacekeepers in order to prevent the NATO bombing of the Serb positions. He was also found guilty of the 1995 Srebrenica genocide.

During 4 years of fighting in Bosnia and Herzegovina, over 100,000 people lost their lives. Its capital, Sarajevo, endured 1,425 days of siege at the cost of 10,541 lives of its citizens, including lives of 1,601 children.

The conviction rested on a mountain of evidence proving the existence of genocidal intent on the political level in the case of Srebrenica. Radovan Karadzic’s court file alone is almost 35,000 pages long and includes documents produced by the Parliament of the Republic of Srpska and its Ministry of Interior as well as a number of local police precincts.

“Some of us should ‘thank’ Radovan Karadzic for sending us to Canada,” said my friend Tanja, as we discussed the effects of his sentencing hearing in The Hague. Together with her husband and their young son, she left Sarajevo for Edmonton in 1995.

“Yes, many people had died and even more, including the three of us, had suffered terribly because of what he did and encouraged others to do. We were lucky though to be able to escape death and establish a home in Canada, and befriend people whom we otherwise would have never met.

It is painful for me to say this, but the war has changed us in so many ways, and not all of those have necessarily been negative. We have decided not to remain victims of Radovan Karadzic’s politics and actions but to build our lives anew, and enrich ourselves with new experiences and friendships. On the other hand, I hope that he would spend the rest of his days behind bars.”

The devilish irony of her words made me pause and think about my life in the Canadian prairies. It made me think of exile and its discontents. Did I really “profit” from the carnage in Yugoslavia and what price did I pay (and keep paying?) for the “good life” I live now? Conversations I have with my fellow countrymen in Edmonton often end with all of us either reminiscing about the time before the war and bloodshed in Yugoslavia or comparing various Canadian situations and our experiences with what we remember from the old country.

We compare education systems, health care services, political views, driving habits, and culinary preferences. As a rule, all of us miss the proverbial good old days. Some of my friends wake up in Edmonton every morning listening to a tune broadcasted by Radio Sarajevo. When I sing in the shower, which is happening with the alarming regularity and to the chagrin of my wife, I am belting out sevdah – the Balkan version of blues – rather than Deep Purple and Rolling Stones tunes that marked the years of my youth. It seems that the Balkan boy in me has been awakened on the Canadian prairies. Indeed, Karadzic affected us all in different ways.

Did I really “profit” from the carnage in Yugoslavia and what price did I pay (and keep paying?) for the “good life” I live now?

Tanja’s statement sparked in me much more than the feeling of nostalgia. It brought back from the shadows an unpleasant aspect of my family history. Radovan Karadzic is my relative, on my mother’s side. For years, I felt uneasy about that. I have never met him in person but Karadzic’s actions and his politics have been a topic of many heated discussions at family gatherings. My vehement public opposition to the war put me at odds with many of my relatives.

Particularly unpleasant were the discussions I had with those who volunteered to fight against “Ustashas” and “Turks,” and protect their version of “Serbhood.” For them, I remain a traitor to both the national cause and the sacred code that binds a family together. This has cast a shadow over every visit to the country of my birth I have had over the last two decades.

When I travel to Montenegro these days, I learn that many of them are too busy to have a proper visit with me. I struggle with the fact that some of my cousins see Karadzic as a hero, and as a modern-day version of a hayduk - a medieval Balkan outlaw. For them, family loyalty takes precedent over everything else, and they defend Karadzic, no matter what. I am not sure that the verdict passed by the ICTY will change that. 

My friend’s comments also reminded me of the angst I experienced every time I met people from my former country. Conversations I had over the last two decades in my adopted homelands of Great Britain and Canada with people from Bosnia and Croatia made me feel guilty about having such a relative, albeit a distant one.

Because of that, I seldom spoke of it and did so only in private conversations. Truth be told, I had been afraid of the reaction of others. Today, like my friend Tanja, I also hope that my relative – a convicted war criminal - would remain in prison for life.

For many of those who had survived the Bosnian slaughterhouse orchestrated by Radovan Karadzic and his nationalist clones, his 40-year conviction does not sound just. Following his sentencing a number of organizations and victim advocacy groups had expressed their frustration pointing out that Karadzic had not received a life sentence.

It brought back from the shadows an unpleasant aspect of my family history. Radovan Karadzic is my relative, on my mother’s side.

While I understand the emotions behind such frustration, it should be said that such a lengthy sentence does amount to life in prison. Taking into account time already served and considering the practice of the court to release convicts after they serve 2/3 of their sentence, Karadzic still has to serve 19 years. Being in his mid-70s it is unlikely that he will live long enough to walk again as a free man, the proverbial longevity of the male members of his extended family notwithstanding. 

We should also accept the fact that there is no such a thing as absolute justice. Our understanding of justice as well as expectations we might have from a court ruling would seldom, if ever, be met by any legal decision passed by any group of international judges. No court in any legal system, national or international, can bring back that what had been taken away forever.

For their part, the Serbian nationalists see Karadzic’s verdict as yet another proof of the international conspiracy against the Serbs and of the political nature of this tribunal. History shows us that international tribunals emerge from a particular political and social post-conflict discourse and cannot be divorced from it. This inherent connection does not mean such tribunals are less objective when it comes to gathering evidence and evaluating it according to the letter of the law.

The reality is that in their work international tribunals always display a keen sense of balance and historical responsibility. The ICTY is not an exception to this rule, and we had witnessed the desire of the tribunal to once again strike a balance of some kind in the case against another nationalist leader from 1990s - the president of the Serbian Radical Party, Vojislav Seselj. His sentencing in absentia has further sharpened the disagreements over the nature of the ICTY and deepened the national, ethnic and religious fault lines in the region.

A warmonger extraordinaire, Vojislav Seselj surrendered to the ICTY in 2003 and was acquitted of all charges in 2016. The story of his departure had been “wrapped” in the Serbian national flag by his supporters, while Seselj promoted his resolve to defeat the international tribunal. He portrayed himself as an Eastern Orthodox white knight who entered the belly of the beast so he could take it apart from within. The outcome of the trial is taken by many as a victory over the Serb-hating international legal machine.

The author, Srdja Pavlovic.With one dissenting opinion, the judges found no connection between Seselj’s warmongering and crimes committed by paramilitary forces he had influence over. They concluded that he was a motivational speaker only attempting to lift the spirit of the Serbian people. But what remained sidelined in many of the post-sentencing analyses was the fact that Seselj was charged with individual responsibility, and not command.

The Article 7 of the ICTY Statute specifies that inciting violence that leads to the committing of crimes listed in articles 2-5 would be adequately sanctioned. It seems that judges had sufficient legal basis to convict Vojislav Seselj of inciting violence against non-Serbs. Moreover, the International Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) had tried three journalists who incited violence and had found them guilty. Two of them received life sentences, while one was sent to prison for 35 years. 

The long-lasting negative effects of Seselj’s acquittal have to do with the lack of legal sanctions for warmongering and inciting violence despite the overwhelming evidence to the contrary and despite the above-mentioned precedents established by the ICTR. The judges made a conscious effort to disconnect words from the actions that followed.

It has been clear to those of us who have studied the Yugoslav wars that Seselj’s inflammatory rhetoric and his “call of duty” were a major contributing factor to the crimes being committed. It has also been clear that his words carried political weight and legitimacy because the audience knew that the structures of power in Serbia had approved of his message.

Karadzic was expendable even though he was the leader of the Bosnian Serbs. Or, was it precisely because of that?

The judges, however, failed to acknowledge this important and direct link, thus fueling further the accusatory narrative about the ICTY as a political court. Truth be told, the acquittal of Vojislav Seselj has not been the first time the ICTY manifested questionable judgment and a desire to strike a curious balance between convictions and acquittals. The earlier verdicts reached in the proceedings against the Croatian general, Ante Gotovina, Kosovo’s Ramus Haradinaj, and the former commander of the defenses of Srebrenica, Naser Oric, had betrayed the same desire.

On a more general note, Karadzic’s and Seselj’s verdicts, each in its own way, manifested an effort to misrepresent the character of the conflict in the SFR Yugoslavia, and absolve the official Serbia from having any responsibility for the bloody breakup. Karadzic was acquitted on Article 1 of the indictment - genocide in the municipalities of Prijedor, Bratunac, Foca, Zvornik, Sanski Most, Vlasenica, Kljuc.

Convicting him of this charge would have meant acknowledging assistance provided to Karadzic by external actors as well as their knowledge of the genocidal intent and, most importantly, their direct involvement. As rightly pointed out by Eric Gordy and others, one of the lines which the judges have appeared unwilling to cross is the recognition of the involvement of Serbia in cross-border conflicts. Karadzic was expendable even though he was the leader of the Bosnian Serbs. Or, was it precisely because of that?

Seselj, being the politician from Serbia and one of the former vice-premiers in the Serbian government, was portrayed by the judges as nothing more than a nationalist orator who had motivated Serbs from Croatia and Bosnia to fight. The manner in which he had been acquitted shifted a burden of responsibility from Belgrade to the leaders of the Bosnian and Croatian Serbs, many of whom have been already convicted. With this in mind, it is indeed very difficult to overlook a curious balancing game the ICTY has been playing for years. 

It is worth noting, however, that the amassing an archive of several million pages of documents and testimonies might be the greatest achievement of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. The existence of such inventory of suffering should be made available to those that come after us. Following a lengthy campaign led by victim groups the Canadian parliament unanimously adopted the Srebrenica genocide resolution in 2010 (M-416).

Radovan Karadzic's arrest mugshot. Wikimedia. CC.The recent conviction of Radovan Karadzic is an opportunity for the Canadian government to reaffirm its commitment to prevent such atrocities from happening again, and support the continuing functioning of the ICTY by protecting its immense archive from being parceled between former belligerents. Such parceling of files between Serbia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina (as it had been suggested some years ago) could be detrimental to the integrity of the documents and might also result in a restricted access for researchers.

Instead, the Canadian government should work with its international partners on identifying the most appropriate location elsewhere that would house the entire collection and make it open both to the public and to researchers. The Canadian Museum of Human Rights comes to mind as one such location. 

Even though very few people have been satisfied with its work, albeit for different reasons, this tribunal has delivered some measure of justice, at least. Its verdicts could not reverse time but may help us achieve some closure. As for my own dilemmas, I am heading to Montenegro this summer to try and mend fences with some of my relatives. I cannot predict how busy they might be once I arrive there but I plan to call on them nevertheless.

About the author

Dr. Srdja Pavlovic teaches modern European and Balkan history at the University of Alberta. He is the Research Associate of the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies (U of A) and the author of Balkan Anschluss (Purdue Univ. Press, 2008). His upcoming book is entitled It Could Have Been Spring: Case Studies of Active Citizenship and Direct Democracy.


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