Karadzic: What Kind Of Justice?

Somehow -don’t press me for an explanation- the Netherlands has in recent years acquired a reputation as a place where wrongdoers from all points of the compass come to be tried, judged and punished. Just why a small, inconsequential nation with a blood-stained colonial past, some of the most loutish football hooligans on the planet, under constant foreign criticism of its permissive attitudes towards drugs and sex, should be deemed the right place for dispensing that rarest of commodities -impartial justice- is a complete mystery to me. What’s wrong with Denmark? Or Cuba? Nor does the justice for which foreign defendants have so far been hauled over to the Low Countries particularly impress. The Dutch generously handed over an old army base, Camp Zeist, to a bunch of Scottish judges, who proceeded to convict and jail two Libyans for the bombing of a PanAm airliner over Lockerbie in December 1988 without having been given a single crumb of hard evidence. At the Yugoslavia tribunal in The Hague, former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic died in circumstances reeking suspiciously of medical neglect just as his defence was getting underway. His potentially explosive evidence and his planned questioning of certain high-ranking politicians about the true events of, and background to, the war in Kosovo never materialized. That was a pity, for there is much to be known about the nature and history of the Serbian-Albanian antagonism (not to mention all the other ethnic, cultural, sectarian, tribal and territorial antagonisms that have led to the Balkans’ many centuries of bloodshed) that remained obscured by the fog of war and the shockingly biased coverage of the conflict by the western media.

Shocking anti-Serb bias is also what awaits Radovan Karadzic, former president of the widely unrecognized Bosnian Republika Srpska. He will take up residence in his prison cell soon. Had he been arrested a month earlier he might have been in The Hague in time to share a joke and a few nips of plum brandy with Naser Oric. Naser, a former commander of Bosnian Muslim forces in Srebrenica, was tried by the Tribunal for having presided over the massacre of several thousand Serbs. At the beginning of this month he was acquitted on the fairly ludicrous pretext that the prosecution had ‘failed to prove that Oric had been in control of his men’. A line of defense that, you can be damned sure, will be denied Karadzic…or indeed the yet to be arrested Ratko Mladic when they face charges of genocide connected with the massacre, also in Srebrenica, of thousands of Bosnian Muslim men and youths.

The news of Karadzic’ arrest was welcomed especially warmly in the Netherlands, where the failure of Dutch troops stationed in Srebrenica to prevent the slaughter of the Muslim males has left deep mental scars and lingering feelings of guilt. The boys of Dutchbat, inexperienced in war and not equipped for serious fighting, had little option but to let the superior Serb forces do as they pleased. Maybe that trauma will recede, as the highest ranking Bosnian Serb steps into the limelight. For the Yugoslavia Tribunal itself, the imminent arrival in The Hague of a really big fish is nothing less than a godsend. The Court, which started its work in 1993, has hardly covered itself in unbiased glory: the list of persons indicted for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia is heavily dominated by Serbs, with a few handfuls of Croats and some token Albanians and Bosnian Muslims thrown in to create a semblance of impartiality. The rate of acquittals and dropped indictments among Albanians is surprisingly high, by the way. How can this be, after a multi-sided civil war in which -how could it be otherwise- all parties committed gruesome acts of mass murder, rape and ethnic cleansing? How, moreover, do we ever expect the old enmities in the region to be buried after such a lack of even-handedness? Far from working towards closure, the Yugoslavia Tribunal, with its insistence that some parties are guiltier than others, is storing up big trouble for the future. Judging Radovan Karadzic -or anyone else, for that matter- by an abstract, generalized notion of good behaviour for events presided over at a time of utter chaos and confusion and in a climate of unbridled fury and hatred is a complete nonsense.

The fact that my country offers itself up so readily as the venue for such high-profile legal travesties angers me. Karadzic has been declared guilty as hell by media and politicians around the world, so either have the courage of your convictions and shoot him like a dog or let him go free. Impartial justice, not bloody likely.

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