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The Hague Tribunal - A View from Belgrade (January 2001)

Opinion polls in Serbia show that a large majority of people consider the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in the Hague to be a political instrument with which the Americans bash down the Serbs. So they oppose the extradition of those indicted, including the now rather unpopular Slobodan Milosevic, who was defeated in the elections last September. And when the Tribunal's chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte comes to Belgrade this Tuesday, she will not be receiving a warm welcome.

American politicians vie with each other for the support of different ethnic lobbies inside the United States. For example, to get the Cuban vote in Florida, they are tough on Fidel Castro; and to get the Jewish vote in New York, they are soft on Israel. At the same time, the U.S. foreign policy establishment (both Democratic and Republican) demands that Vojislav Kostunica, the president of Yugoslavia, which consists of Serbia and much smaller Montenegro, unconditionally cooperate with the Hague Tribunal. Kostunica, however, is a sensible politician. He knows that although the Serbian lobby is weak in the United States, it is all- powerful in Serbia. Taking the mood of his voters seriously, he criticizes the Tribunal and expresses reservations about receiving Del Ponte.

Long before the civil war in former Yugoslavia, I myself had concluded that the world needed an international court to try governments and commanders of armies for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide. But since its establishment in May 1993 by the UN Security Council, I have constantly been disappointed with the version of such a court currently operating in The Hague. I almost feel like a communist true believer who in the 1930s suddenly realized that there was terror in the Soviet Union.

Biljana Plavsic, professor of biology and one of the leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, recently appeared in front of the Hague Tribunal to face charges of genocide. The prosecutor told us only what we have known for many years about the crimes committed by the Bosnian Serbs. Not a shred of new or recent evidence was presented. But when Plavsic was the pro-Western president of the Serbian part of Bosnia between 1996 and 1998, and in conflict with her former nationalistic colleagues, she was hailed in the West as a democrat and champion of national tolerance. I remember seeing on television the French president Jacques Chirac kiss her hand at the entrance of the Elysee palace. So how can I now avoid being reminded of Stalin's purges -- one day you receive the medal of the Hero of the Soviet Union, the next you are shot as an enemy of the people?

On May 27, 1999, at the height of the NATO bombing campaign, Judge Louise Arbour of Canada, the predecessor of Del Ponte as the chief prosecutor of the Hague tribunal, issued a warrant for the arrest of President Slobodan Milosevic. The indictment was based on evidence gathered by the American and British intelligence services about the expulsions and killings of Albanians in Kosovo. Now, Milosevic could have been charged several years before, for his responsibility for the war in Bosnia. But the U.S. Department of State needed his support for the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995, so all those crimes, at the time, were conveniently forgotten.

Soon afterwards, I heard in Belgrade that Vuk Draskovic, one of the opposition leaders in Serbia, was threatened by the United States officials with indictment for the activities of his short-lived paramilitary organization during the 1991 war in Croatia. It seems they were saying: Stop trying to be the leader of the opposition, thus creating conflicts with other leaders, or we will indict you.

Can we dismiss out of hand as nationalists those Serbs who ask: How come Franjo Tudjman (the president of Croatia who died in December 1999) was never indicted? Under his rule almost half a million Serbs were expelled from Croatia, and he too sent troops into Bosnia to fight against the Muslims and partition it. And what about Alija Izetbegovic, the Muslim leader and the president of Bosnia, whose goal never was a multi-ethnic (Muslim-Serbian-Croatian) Bosnia, but rather the establishment of the first Muslim state in Europe? Under his rule, Sarajevo was "cleansed" of most of its Serbs and Croats. Further, what about Hashim Thaqi, the young leader of the Kosovo Liberation Army? When Serbian troops moved out of Kosovo and NATO moved in, in June 1999, it was actually the KLA which took over; and since then it has destroyed dozens of Serbian Orthodox churches and monasteries, killed hundreds of civilians, and expelled almost all Serbs and other non-Albanians.

Last but definitely not least, can we avoid asking questions about the responsibility of NATO leaders? Perhaps as many as several thousand Serbian civilians were killed during the bombing. And it may turn out both that the depleted uranium bullets do cause lethal radiation and that some commanders and politicians knew about this. By bombing Serbia's infrastructure, NATO in any case violated Article 14 of the 1977 Protocol to the 1949 Geneva Convention, which prohibits attacks on "objects indispensable to the survival of the civilian population."

But the United States will never accept the jurisdiction of an independent international court over its own political leaders and military force. Nor will any other strong country. The spokesman for the International Relations Committee of the U.S. House of Representatives was rather frank (National Post, Ottawa, May 22, 1999): "You're more likely to see the UN building dismantled brick-by-brick and thrown into the Atlantic than to see NATO pilots go before a UN tribunal."

Instead of being fair and delivering justice, the Hague Tribunal has surrendered to political pressures and manipulation. As a result, rather than helping the Serbs go through a moral catharsis by punishing their guilty leaders for their misdeeds, it will only be reinforcing anti-Western prejudices and the sense of victimization already pervasive in Serbia.

January 19, 2001

This article was originally published as a column for the Project Syndicate, a consortium of over seventy international journals devoted to generating and disseminating fresh op-ed views.


About the Author

Aleksa Djilas

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Global Europe Program

The Global Europe Program is focused on Europe’s capabilities, and how it engages on critical global issues.  We investigate European approaches to critical global issues. We examine Europe’s relations with Russia and Eurasia, China and the Indo-Pacific, the Middle East and Africa. Our initiatives include “Ukraine in Europe” – an examination of what it will take to make Ukraine’s European future a reality.  But we also examine the role of NATO, the European Union and the OSCE, Europe’s energy security, transatlantic trade disputes, and challenges to democracy. The Global Europe Program’s staff, scholars-in-residence, and Global Fellows participate in seminars, policy study groups, and international conferences to provide analytical recommendations to policy makers and the media.  Read more