The Hague Showdown

Slobodan Milosevic’s defense at the Hague Inquisition began this week, after several delays. Reporters in The Hague, who are without exception partial to the Tribunal and scornful of Milosevic, described his opening statement as “defiant” but pointless, as he supposedly did not address the actual charges. But the prattling of Tribunal camp-followers notwithstanding, even the sparse quotes coming from The Hague indicate otherwise.

Milosevic apparently chose to ignore the pseudo-legal fictions the Inquisition uses as props, and focused on the heart of the matter: the underlying premise that he was at the heart of the “joint criminal enterprise,” a conspiracy of Serb leadership to destroy and carve up Yugoslavia, while systematically killing and expelling Croats, Muslims and Albanians, which he deemed “unscrupulous lies and a tireless distortion of history.”

In that, he is absolutely right. The crux of the indictment against him is a conspiracy theory conjured by a former FBI agent and garnished with a vulgar, warmed-over canard theory first concocted over 100 years ago (“Greater Serbia”), which has little or nothing to do with the truth, and even less with justice.

Conjuring a Conspiracy

A very revealing two-part article appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on August 22 and 29. The paper’s reporter profiled a local law professor, John Cencich. As it turns out:

“Cencich played a key role in devising a revolutionary strategy for prosecuting war criminals. The Milosevic case marks the first time the principle of accomplice liability has been used in an international court.

“Milosevic didn’t commit the crimes in the conventional sense, by pulling a trigger or assaulting anyone. As president of Serbia at the time – he wasn’t president of Yugoslavia until 1997 – he lacked legal command of federal forces and of the paramilitary units raised in Croatian Serbian enclaves and blamed for many atrocities.

“Yet world opinion held Milosevic accountable for Yugoslavia’s violent disintegration, and court records alleged he directed events from the Serbian capital, Belgrade.”

In Cencich’s innovative interpretation of international law, if Milosevic could be charged of belonging to a group of conspirators, then “each member of the group was responsible for every crime, planned or unplanned, arising from the enterprise.” This mind-boggling theory, worse even than the catchall doctrine of “command responsibility” also used by the ICTY, is the basis for the entire indictment!

Many supporters of the ICTY argue that it does not seek to apportion collective responsibility, but determine individual guilt for specific atrocities in the former Yugoslavia. The theories of “command responsibility” and “joint criminal enterprise” effectively scuttle that argument, because they have been used to indict the entire political and military leadership of the Serbian people. So while it is an obvious truth that Milosevic is not Serbia, the ICTY treats him as such, and by prosecuting him effectively prosecutes Serbia. Whoever believes that there won’t be any consequences to Serbia as a result of guilty verdicts against its political and military leadership is either disingenuous or breathtakingly stupid, or both.

Whosoever Is Without Sin…

On the eve of Milosevic’s opening statement, the Belgrade agent of Human Rights Watch, one Bogdan Ivanisevic, published an op-ed in the International Herald Tribune, defending the trial and the Tribunal as paragons of fairness and justice. Says Ivanisevic:

“Many Western observers expected the tribunal to rapidly confirm the accepted wisdom that Milosevic was responsible for war crimes, crimes against humanity and even genocide in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. Yet they failed to appreciate the important difference between determining political responsibility in the realm of public opinion and establishing criminal responsibility in a court of law.”

Perhaps this is because for most of Tribunal’s backers, that difference is nonexistent. They own the public opinion, and create the accepted wisdom, in addition to owning and creating the “court of law” such as the ICTY. It may be a waste of breath to point out that the UN Security Council cannot establish courts, because it has no judicial authority, and that the ICTY therefore is not legal – but that makes it no less true.

From a perspective of legitimacy, prosecuting Milosevic for war crimes would make sense if the forces backing the Tribunal – i.e., the Empire and its allies – themselves respected the laws and customs of war. But they do not, and even reject the notion that any laws apply to their unrestrained use of power.

The Inquisition claims Milosevic condoned “ethnic cleansing,” even as its chief backer – the United States – organized, instigated and supported the Croatian ethnic cleansing of Serbs in Krajina and Bosnia (1995) and the Albanian expulsion of Serbs from Kosovo (1999+). Is it not incongruous that the country that gave us Abu Ghraib can champion a court that charges Milosevic of being responsible for torture, deaths and inhumane conditions in POW camps in Bosnia?

None of these is an argument of moral equivalence; Milosevic’s involvement in these alleged atrocities has always been in the realm of wild insinuations, while the U.S. responsibility for the aforementioned atrocities – and a host of others, elsewhere – has been established well beyond reasonable doubt.

Whence the Hate?

Yet as HRW’s Ivanisevic points out, there is an “accepted wisdom” that Milosevic was responsible for the Balkans wars of the 1990s, even though there is no evidence for it, and much against. In effect, he has already been convicted in the court of public opinion, and the ICTY proceedings are just a formality.

That may be true, but who is that “court,” then? Was the verdict reached based on efforts of PR companies, who had once similarly convinced the world of Iraqi incubator-smashing? Were its “expert witnesses” the various adherents of the Stephen Glass school of journalism? This is the very same media – sometimes the very same people – who peddled the shameless lies of Bush and Blair about “Saddam’s WMD” and the war in Iraq, isn’t it?

Just because everyone believes what is said on TV and in the papers does not make it true; the WMD example demonstrates clearly that it can be absolutely false. The notion that Western media persistently lied – whether about Milosevic and the Balkans, or about Saddam Hussein and Iraq, or who knows what else – may sound incredible, but it is a lot more realistic than the crackpot conspiracy theories peddled by the ICTY.

Of course, Milosevic is hated by many in Croatia, Bosnia and the Albanian-occupied Kosovo, as the arch-villain responsible for all their suffering. Lost in their haze of hatred is the consideration of their own role in the 1990s violence. Victim politics is a powerful force.

This also explains why Milosevic is vilified by so many in Serbia. The Western media, governments and NGOs love to claim that Serbs have been fed “a steady diet of propaganda” over the past 15 years, but most of that propaganda was their own. Unable to comprehend why anyone would hate them so much, many Serbs began to think they must have done something to merit such demonization. While Milosevic and his family have certainly given people plenty to be bitter about, that does not explain the extent to which he is hated. More likely, most Serbians blame Milosevic because that is convenient – certainly more so than facing the Empire’s lies, or rediscovering personal responsibility. We are, after all, talking about people who jailed the TV station supervisor because NATO bombed and killed his workers.

An “Obvious Equation”

All these lies and insinuations serve the same end: to strengthen the Empire in its mission of world domination, supposedly benevolent and prosperity-bringing. This pursuit is by definition hypocritical and cynical, treating the Balkans as chump change and harboring contempt for truth and justice.

Consider this official government statement by Condoleezza Rice, just last weekend:

“America has gone to war five times since the end of the Cold War … each time it was to help Muslims[.] Americans have fought in Kuwait and in Bosnia and in Kosovo and in Afghanistan and Iraq. Without exception, these were wars of liberation and of freedom.”

And here is Peter Fray, in Australia’s The Age, writing about the U.S. desire to catch Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic:

“As Iraq inflames anti-U.S. tensions in the Arab world, Washington would like nothing better than to bring a high-profile alleged Muslim-killer to justice.

“‘It would be an obvious story for us to sell,’ a U.S. official told The Age, on condition of anonymity. ‘It is an obvious equation for us.'”

Criticizing Bush’s handling of the Iraq war (but not the war itself), former first lady and now Senator Hillary Clinton boasted to CNN of her husband’s war record: “You know, we were successful in Kosovo – and we didn’t lose a single American military person.”

That Kosovo fit the definition of the very first Nuremberg crime is beside the point, of course. Hillary Clinton’s contempt for lives of non-Americans rivals that of her husband for the truth.

It’s the Truth, Stupid

Defending Milosevic from the ridiculous and trumped-up charges of the Hague Inquisition does not mean approving either of his policies or his actions. It does, however, mean opposing the ongoing travesty in The Hague that claims the mantle of international justice while in fact it represents the exact opposite.

Were the Balkans wars of the 1990s ridden with atrocities? Of course – and those responsible for them ought to be properly tried and punished, that should be obvious. But does the Milosevic trial serve the cause of justice? Its perversion of judicial procedures, the very existence of ICTY without the requisite legitimacy, and most of all the manifestly false “facts” asserted in the indictment and in the Imperial media, make it obvious that it does not. Justice is served by truth – but in The Hague, there just isn’t any.

Author: Nebojsa Malic

Nebojsa Malic left his home in Bosnia after the Dayton Accords and currently resides in the United States. During the Bosnian War he had exposure to diplomatic and media affairs in Sarajevo. As a historian who specializes in international relations and the Balkans, Malic has written numerous essays on the Kosovo War, Bosnia, and Serbian politics. His exclusive column for debuted in November 2000.