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Do War Crimes Tribunals Help or Hinder Reconciliation?

Jiří DienstbierJiří Dienstbier was Foreign Minister of Czechoslovakia and Special Rapporteur of the UNHRC in the Balkans. This piece, from Project Syndicate's Human Rights Revolution series, is his first on Webdiary.

by Jiří Dienstbier

Serbia’s long tragedy looks like it is coming to an end. The death of Slobodan Milosevic has just been followed by Montenegro’s referendum on independence. Independence for Kosovo, too, is inching closer.

The wars of the Yugoslav succession have not only been a trial for the peoples of that disintegrated country; they also raised huge questions about the exercise of international justice. Do international tribunals of the sort Milosevic faced before his death promote or postpone serious self-reflection and reconciliation in damaged societies? Do they strengthen or undermine the political stability needed to rebuild wrecked communities and shattered economies?

The evidence on these questions is mixed. Indeed, the record of the International War Crimes Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), based in The Hague, may be instructive in judging the credibility of the strategy of using such trials as part of the effort to end civil and other wars. In 13 years, the ICTY, with 1,200 employees, spent roughly $1.25 billion to convict only a few dozen war criminals. Moreover, whereas members of all ethnic groups committed crimes, in its first years, the ICTY indicted and prosecuted far more Serbs than others, fueling a perception, even among opponents of Milosevic’s regime, that the tribunal was political and anti-Serbian.

We may regret that Milosevic’s own trial ended without a conclusion. But a conviction only of Milosevic, however justified, without parallel penalties for his Croat, Bosniak, and Kosovo-Albanian counterparts would hardly have contributed to serious self-reflection within the post-Yugoslav nations.

To be sure, the arrest of General Ante Gotovina, adored by many Croats as a hero, but responsible for the brutal expulsion of a quarter-million Serbs from Croatia and north-west Bosnia – the biggest ethnic cleansing in Europe since WWII – improves the ICTY’s standing. But Milosevic’s Croatian and Bosniak counterparts, Franjo Tudjman and Alija Izetbegovic, respectively, remained unindicted when they died. So, too, the main commanders of the Kosovo Liberation Army (UCK). Ramush Haradinaj, the prime minister of Kosovo, was accused but later released from detention.

I have always been convinced that Milosevic should have been put on trial in Belgrade. After all, Milosevic’s critics and political rivals such as the journalist Slavko Curuvija and Milosevic’s former mentor, Ivan Stambolic, were assasinated by Serb police agents, who also tried three times to murder the opposition leader Vuk Draskovic. There was, moreover, ample evidence of corruption among Milosevic’s inner circle, including members of his immediate family.

Holding the trial in Belgrade might have served better to catalyze a sober examination of the past. The atmosphere was certainly favorable. The majority of Serbs hold Milosevic responsible for the decline of their society. Even before his fall, the opposition controlled most big Serbian cities, and in 2000 he lost the election that he called to shore up his authority. The relatively small turnout at his funeral confirmed that only a minority of Serbs considers him a national hero.

Meanwhile, with the exception of Slovenia, the democratic transformation in the post-Yugoslav region remains uneasy. Wars, ethnic cleansing, embargoes, and sanctions created not only psychological traumas, but also black markets, smuggling, large-scale corruption, and de facto rule by mafias. The bombing of Serbia by NATO in 1999 heavily damaged its economy, with serious consequences for neighboring countries.

The definitive end of what remains of Yugoslavia may – at least today – pose no danger of war, but the Muslim Sandjak region will now be divided by state boundaries, and Albanian extremists, with their dreams of a Greater Albania, believe their influence in a separate Montenegro will be reinforced with a yes vote on independence. Most Serbs and Croats in Bosnia believe that the best solution to the problems of that sad country would be to join the territories that they inhabit with their “mother” countries.

Then there is the unresolved status of Kosovo, where the Albanian majority demands independence, and extremists threaten to fight for it. As one Kosovo Liberation Army commander warned, “If we kill one KFOR soldier a day, these cowards will leave.” With independence, the extremists would gain a territorial base from which to undermine Macedonia, southern Montenegro, and southern Serbia, jeopardizing stability in the entire region.

Serbia is offering Kosovo the formula “less than independence, more than autonomy.” It demands security guarantees for the Serbian minority and cultural monuments, as well as control of the borders with Albania and Macedonia to stop traffic in arms, drugs, and women, and to prevent the use of Kosovo by Albanian extremists.

Any resolution of Kosovo’s status is problematic, but the international community should not repeat old mistakes. In 1991, the principle that only a politically negotiated division of Yugoslavia would be recognized was abandoned. Now, as then, a change of boundaries without the consent of all concerned parties would not only violate international law, but could also lead to violence.

The international community must not be gulled into thinking that war-crimes trials marginalize, rather than mobilize, extremists and nationalists. Pressure on Croatia and Serbia to arrest and hand over suspects – a condition of EU accession negotiations – has yielded several extraditions and may result in more. But further trials alone are unlikely to bring about the long-term settlements that the region’s fragile states need in order to ensure stability and democratic development. The people of the Balkans should feel that the EU offers them political and economic support. They deserve it.

Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2006.  

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Forgiveness? Why ask me?

Daemon:  First I think you will see if you read that post I put on back there I was arguing that war criminals or those guilty of crimes against humanity would best be put on trial by the international court. But as I said it rarely happens. Countries will always resist having their own called to account on the world stage. But if they are entitled to a fair trial, and not made a hero amidst those they brutalised (as you see with Saddam and his ilk at the moment), then they should in my view be removed to The Hague for trial.  

But as I said, most tyrants of whatever colour, creed or race will die in beds of their own chosing while their victims rot in their graves.

If you are of the opinion that Cheney and BBH should be put on trial, then I think we should first take advice on that matter from the WD chief pacifist and spokesperson on deaths and brutality in Iraq, and elsewhere for that matter. In her long post above on this issue Roslyn Ross ends with:

There are many things in our lives which we need to forgive even if we are unable to forget and nothing is so terrible that it cannot be forgiven.

So it would seem to her, that guilty or innocent, we should just forgive all. I presume she would include in that Saddam and his ilk, along with BBH and anyone else for that matter. Frankly I don't agree with her, but try arguing with her on that score.

But you will say I have copped out on your question, though I am not sure why you have posed it to me anyway. But OK. If BBH are deemed by the world at large to have committed crimes against humanity in Iraq, then let them be tried at The Hague. Perhaps they could share a cell with Saddam and compare notes as to how many they managed to kill and maim between them. My bet however is that BBH will fall far short of their cell mate. But who knows? Roslyn and others on this site throw figures around all the time, so ask them.

Of course the score might be even if you accept Roslyn's claim, that the alleged hundreds of thousands of deaths under the sanctions after the first Gulf War must be attributed to "us". I cite no link for that figure as no one has cited one for me to examine either, but you can find my reply to Roslyn on that issue under the Baghdad night thread.

I find it totally ridiculous to make sweeping claims that people on this site are constantly doing, that 250 000 have been killed and millions more maimed in this war, and attribute them all to BBH. I would engage constructively on this whole issue if people would just for once get their facts sorted. 

Roslyn says the Iraqis have been keeping count so let us have all the figures so we can get all this into some sort of perspective, and start if we must, attributing blame: So tell me with official and authoritative links:

How many Iraqi soldiers and civilians died in the first Gulf War, victims of Saddam's adventure in Kuwait?

How many Kuwaitis died? Again victims of Saddam's adventure.

How may Shias died, victims of Saddam's revenge after GW1?

How many Kurds died, victims of Saddam's hatred of them?

How many other ordinary Iraqis died in Abu Ghraib from 1984 and during Saddam's 30 year rule? 

How many Iranians died, victims of Saddam's war with Iran?

How many Iraqis died, victims of Saddam's games after GW1 during the years of sanctions, through disease and starvation? (I've read claims of hundreds of thousands and I do not accept that they be attributed to us. Saddam brought on the first Gulf War and its aftermath, not us)

How many Iraqis, soldiers and civilians, died as a direct result of the military operations carried out by the COW during the war and current occupation? (By this I mean killed in the shock and awe bombings, and by COW soldiers shooting or shelling in towns and cities. Let us be specific please.)

How many Iraqis died at the hands of the reconstituted Iraqi army, attempting to deal with the likes of that sub human specimen Zaqarwi? (And I will say sub human, not animal. I will not insult other species as some might do).

How many Iraqis have been killed by road side bombs and suicide bombers, set by Iraqis and their associates from outside Iraq? (I assume no one is saying the COW is into laying roadside bombs and exploding cars in markets)

How many Iraqis have been killed in the tit for tat revenge killings of each other, such as the shooting of all those students recently?

How many Iraqis, Kuwaitis and Iranians were injured and maimed in all of the above episodes, and by all of the parties above?

So what are the true facts in all this?  If BBH have to be put on trial for their share, then the facts have to be correct. But does it matter really? We only have to forgive the perpetrators it seems, lest we perpetuate the horrors. 

Well that to me is asking too much. Perhaps Roslyn has never held the cold body of a child in her arms. If she had she might know something of the life long anguish that brings.

Daemon. No matter who they are. If they are guilty, and they should be proven so first, then at the very least lock them up for life. But I personally would rather see them all hang.  It won't happen of course.

Roslyn and most of you will not approve of this, but if there is one thing that gave me a sense of satisfaction, it was hearing that Zaqarwi's last vision in life seems to have been US soldiers hovering over him. Maybe all those hostages he had beheaded and all those Iraqis he had killed with his bombs flashed before his eyes, and hopefully as a result he died in absolute terror, as they did. You will add of course, that one day some Iraqis would like to see the same thing happen to GWB. And that is no doubt very true.

And I say, when it comes to Abu Ghraib, let those US soldiers who seemed to find it all so funny, be handed over to the Iraqis and allow them to mete out exactly the same treatment to them, no more, no less.

Now I have been trying to keep off Webdiary of late, but if you pose a question like that to me I feel I should not just ignore it. But please do not come back to me on all this without all the facts and figures. Then, if you want, we will discuss who should be put on trial, for what and where


Jenny I must confess I agree with bringing war criminals to court preferably in the countries they have destroyed.

Now, which do you propose to try first, Cheney as the inciter, Bush as the instigator or Blair and Howard as accessories before and after the fact.

Also I further agree, Baghdad is definitely the place to try them all.

Justice? forgiveness?

Reconciliation!   Stupid word.  If you have been forced out of your home, seen friends and family slaughtered, maimed or raped and then been hunted in the areas that you have fled too, to find safety, and had your crops and or livelihood destroyed again, do you really expect 'forgiveness?'

Not me. The only intent that I would have would be to slaughter as many of the aggressors as possible, by any and every means that I could devise.

Nor do I understand why women raped in these circumstance ever allow a child to come to term.

The most offensive phrase that I know is: 'We are past that'.   It is often used when the invasion of Iraq is raised. 

We are not past it at all. There are people who must be made to pay!

It is nonsense to suggest that people who have been displaced, slaughtered, raped ought to 'forgive'.

too true.

Slaughtering? Yet, Peter, even as Bush was promising bombing and shooting in Afghanistan, relatives interviewed after 911 did not all want revenge. Many I heard wanted reasons and non-violent solutions, not more suffering, and some wanted better answers, like the chap who lost his dad and was discussing it with O'Reilly. And as for rape and a child, you do not have to go to a war zone for that and find no compassion. I have only heard criminals say "we are past that”. They want it forgotten. The victims want truth and understanding or what really happened and why and who was responsible and justice there. Through truth and reconciliation one can move on, when, as you point out, the victim choses. Only those trying to escape justice want people to leave it.


Without reconciliation

Peter: Without reconciliation one remains trapped in the past. This is destructive psychologically and emotionally both for individuals and for societies. At some point one must be able to move beyond grief and rage if one is to be psychologically and emotionally healthy.

There is a level of rage and grief which must accompany such injustices and suffering but as long as it is allowed to last, the individual or society will be doubly wounded.... first by the initial wrongs, and then by the ongoing hatred, greif and/or rage.

Those like yourself who believe in an 'eye for an eye' merely compound the original wrong by committing yet more wrongs. This has been human history. This is what blood feuds are about. All this does is add more misery to the misery and, as long as people demand this sort of retribution, creates a vicious cycle of revenge and death, revenge and death ad infinitum. This misery is in no one's interests.

You cannot bring the dead back, you cannot put the missing limb back; you cannot take the rape away, but you can heal your grief and you can learn from what has happened to you and refuse to add more suffering to the world by responding in kind.

You do not understand why a woman raped would keep her baby?

Half of that child is hers. She is killing a part of herself as well as a part of the rapist. And, how is the innocent child guilty? Why should that life be extinguished because of a wrong committed by someone else?

Children are precious. Life is precious. I happen to believe that we are all Souls which inhabit human bodies and therefore the 'how we have come about' is not what matters, but the fact that we have. I realise this may not be a common view but it is why I would not abort if I found myself in such a situation.

Also, some women do not have a choice and I am not saying that if a woman has a choice, and chooses to end this life, she should not. It should be her choice.

I haven't heard many say we are 'past all that' in regard to Iraq. Of course this is not the point where we would say, forget it, move on. Justice needs to be done. One would hope to see war crimes charges brought against George Bush, John Howard, Tony Blair and other leaders and also against the military and anyone else who has played a part in the appalling human rights abuses which constitute this invasion and occupation.

I would add there are Iraqis who would need to be called to account as well.

The time to 'move on' is when one has had such a framework for justice established and completed. That is the question raised by this article. It does help to have a sense of justice, but civilized justice, not just another vengeful man or woman with a gun.

And why is it nonsense to suggest that those who have been cruelly treated should forgive? As long as we refuse to forgive we are trapped. It is like a slow rot inside.

Many of us have suffered awful abuse at the hands of our parents. What would it serve to not forgive them their failings and flaws? How would it have helped to go back, when they were weak and we were strong, and to beat them as they have beaten us? How would it help to reduce them to a state of terror as they reduced us?

It wouldn't. There are many things in our lives which we need to forgive even if we are unable to forget and nothing is so terrible that it cannot be forgiven. I would argue, that until it is forgiven, then the abuser will continue to win because the abused person has not been able to leave the place of injustice. In that sense, the abused loses not just at the time, but for years, decades or even a lifetime.

are the coup manufactureres in africa laying in our backyard?

There seems to be a group of elites who consider that fomenting and paying for coups is a legitimate action in enforcing business dealings (we see more details of this in Perkins book "I was an Economic Hit man") and we had Mark Thatcher book murderous mercenaries to kill in Guinea and now again we have another episode of alleged  private mercenaries booked to kill in Africa, with links to mining companies and also Iraq adventures .More details may emerge with the trials, just as Thatcher's role was revealed.


When one considers this modus operation in countries with frail government institutions and plentiful resources one should consider any uprising of military as possible foreign interests/ international corporation derived or funded.

So now we have East Timor. A fragile government, which had a delicate beginning to its freedom, and controversial pullout of UN support - far too early many were saying at the time, despite Australia's contemporary denial of that. We had the government (for oil/gas revenue) here trying to screw a small vulnerable nation as they dealt with their resources in such a ruthless way that I wonder at the lack  of shame at such demonstrable  greed and filth of soul in such business and govt. reps.  Woodside then walked away ,saying it was too late and too bad for east Timor........................I thought a confusing comment at the time as surely if one accepts the East Timorese govt. would stay one should continue to try to find business compromise rather than cut off for others to jump in.

Now we hear that the leader of the coup was trained here in Australia.

One should also note the great reluctance of the East Timor leadership to accept Australian intervention, calling finally (after refusing for days) for a group of different international groups including MALAYSIA. Is this to prevent an "intervention coup" as happened in and attempted again in Solomons? (the riots there showed some dislike of the anointed and significantly the popular replacement has asked Australia to skidaddle soon in dip language). Let us watch closely for Woodside’s response and whether the ET govt. "falls" and is replaced or there is a change in its government’s direction.

War crimes we can see from far away, that is easy. What is our hypermetropia that we miss the local actions of some in our region and maybe even our own? Why are we being a tool of the Indonesian government and their business wishes, such as the Suharto oil company that raped so much from there? Will it now sneak into ET as it is in West Papua? (with Exxon and Chevron  from memory).

War crimes don't just happen in Africa, are the same businesses that pay for them there are doing fine down under.

Let us watch very carefully.

Let us investigate the dollars that this chap moved here in Australia, how he got his arms, whether any deals were made or promises, let us see if there were cash grants that we know happen for "future colleges in ET," ha ha, just as are done here.  Was even Mr Lightfoot in ET recently or Indonesia? Posing for photos?

Why do we come down so hard upon third world nationals for corruption and bribery scandals and over and over ignore the motes in our eyes?

And when coups/military actions are involved, then that is a war crime, non? Or real armed sedition against another elected sovereign government? Is that not a crime? Has it occurred???

If we do not ask the question, it cannot be answered. I hope the answer is no, however timing is never coincidence in history when big benefits are involved to an organised few. War crimes can be for profit and usually have their root there as the saying goes.


Human nature

It is human nature to desire justice or something approximating justice. In less civilized times, and to a degree in some societies too, the belief that punishment should be meted out, recompense paid, or the aggrieved satisfied in some way, has brought us 'blood feuds' which can be handed down for generations.

Laying the past to rest, moving on to a place of forgiveness, even if one cannot forget, is assisted by any sense that the 'wrong' has been 'righted' at least a little, by the application of justice.

In today's modern world we no longer believe that justice lies in the hands of individuals but in an accredited court of law. The International courts and tribunals are an important part of the process of healing and moving on, which individuals and nations must do if they are to move on.

And, being international, they are 'removed' from the influence and bias which may otherwise be attendant, thus, providing people with more certainty that justice is really being done.

But, like all things, it is important to know when to stop. I am not sure it is in anyone's interests to pursue feeble geriatrics some fifty or sixty years after their wrongdoing. One would presume that at some point, with the death of the wrongdoers, it would stop but history suggests otherwise.

Wrongs which are not acknowledged and redressed in some way have a tendency to remain a corroding presence in the hearts and minds of individuals and nations alike. There are many instances where nations, religions, cultures or communities cling to memories of ancient wrongs. I remember standing at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem and asking our guide to translate for me what was being said, only to be astonished at how much of it was a retelling of ancient wrongs committed thousands of years before.

The Irish have a great capacity for remembering ancient wrongs, and so do the Armenians, but they, like the Jews are part of a big club.That's why anything which alleviates grief and rage, for they are the qualities at work, and which enables people to forgive and eventually to forget, is worthwhile.

Sorry, or a sense that justice has been done, goes a long way.

Never brought to account

Countries with war criminals do not have a very good track record of prosecuting their own, and so few are brought to trial by the international court that it is hard to say whether the trials assist reconciliation or not.

Maybe the South African experience is a better way to go, though it is hard to see how that would have worked for the mothers and wives of the Srebenica victims. The sad part about it all is that most war criminals and despots guilty of crimes against humanity will die comfortably in a bed of their own chosing.  Their victims seldom get any sort of justice at all.

But if they are to be tried, it would appear to me that it is better that they be tried in the international court as that at least might give some credilibity to the process and objectivity of a kind. The trial of Saddam in Iraq has turned into such a farce that it risks turning him into a hero, if it has not already done so. I do not think there could be anything worse for his victims and that certainly will not lead to reconciliation in Iraq.

Who won the Wesern Balkans War?

Did Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, Montenegro, Kosovo or Serbia win the war, or did the Atlantic Alliance ? If it is the Atlantic Alliance then that is why the the "war trials" are being held in The Hague. Justice of the Victors.

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