European Affairs

Fugitive Serbian War Criminals and the West     Print Email

Reviewed by François Clemenceau


Peace and Punishment: Secret Wars of Politics and International Justice
By Florence Hartmann. (Published only in French: Paix et châtiment) Flammarion, Paris, 2007, 319 pages.

At last, a new book tackles the tormenting question of why the two most wanted mass murderers of the Yugoslav civil wars have yet to be brought to justice a decade after international warrants were issued for them. Despite repeated reports of their imminent arrests, the pair – Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, who headed the Bosnian Serbs’ army – has managed to elude capture and extradition to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague.


Multiple explanations have been floated for their apparent untouchable status: for example, were they blackmailing some foreign leaders with embarrassing secrets about their governments’ complicity in stirring up the conflict in Bosnia? But after the Serbian authorities gave up Slobodan Milosevic, the former head of Yugoslavia, to the Hague tribunal (he died there while his long messy trial was still going on), the mystery deepened. What could his two henchmen know that Milosevic didn’t? Year after year, their impunity has marred hopes for closure among the communities who survived the ethnic cleansing and other civilian atrocities in the Yugoslav conflicts – and undermined hopes for stronger international justice on war crimes.

Now an explanation has finally come from an authoritative source – Florence Hartmann, a former official at the Hague tribunal and an experienced journalist in the Balkans. In a behind-the-scenes account of the manhunt, Peace and Punishment, a well-found pun on Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, she shows how the two war criminals benefited from power politics among the very nations that, publicly, were pressing for the success of the Hague tribunal. The United States, France, Germany and Britain were officially proclaiming their determination to see justice done. But in practice, these same governments often worked at odds with the tribunal, putting a higher priority on their national agendas and broader political goals in the post-war Balkans.

Essentially, the Western objective was to preserve some ties with Serbia in a process of often-painful transformation that ultimately included the independence of Kosovo. When the newly-elected Kosovar government announced its unilateral declaration of independence in February 2008, the new country was recognized by main Western governments in spite of the bitter objections from the Serbian government in Belgrade and the wider Serbian population. Russia has resisted the step, too, partly because it fears any trend toward enlarging NATO. Some EU governments have not recognized Kosovo, citing their concern about separatist movements. But Washington and key EU capitals showed solid common purpose in this showdown.

The current outlook is a stark contrast to the same Western governments’ double-talk and maneuvering about Bosnia and its war criminals. On this score, Hartmann makes a compelling case, including detailed accounts of dramatic face-to-face encounters between Western leaders that resulted in vetoes on planned commando raids to apprehend the fugitives. Repeatedly, politics got in the way of justice. For Washington, the overriding priority was preserving relations with Moscow by accepting Russian refusal to see its protégés arrested. European governments had their own goal: keeping the door ajar for Belgrade to bring Serbia into the European Union someday. According to Hartmann, drawing on her special access to these events, European leaders saw this outcome as a way of gradually taming Serbian nationalism and weaning Belgrade away from Russia. In the view of European capitals and of Washington, forcible capture of these notorious fugitives was liable to precipitate an anti-Western outburst, consolidating a “Slavic alliance” between Moscow and Belgrade, and deepening the fissures and instability in the Balkans.

In laying bare the political dynamics and miscalculations about the region, Hartmann has used the Hague tribunal as a revealing microcosm. Her book provides a balanced account of the international tribunal’s achievements: in 14 years, the ICTY has indicted 161 people and brought to trial 146 of them (including Milosevic, who died without being convicted). But Hartmann’s theme is not self-congratulatory about the long, hard work put in by herself and her colleagues in pursuit of justice. On the contrary, her thesis – convincingly narrated – is that the mission of the ICTY was sabotaged by the very same Western governments that appeared to be supporting its work. She laments that everyone involved – the member states of the United Nations Security Council, the NATO alliance, the EU, together with other countries in southeast Europe with virulent nationalisms, shunned their self-proclaimed task of purging the past to lay the basis for a better future and instead chose to collectively turn their backs on the history of a dozen years of savage civil war and civilian massacres in the former Yugoslavia.

Hartmann’s account is punctuated with dramatic revelations about world leaders’ wheeling and dealing about what the tribunal was allowed to do and the clashes among leaders about key decisions. She recounts one such showdown in 1997 in Paris when President Jacques Chirac was on the point of ordering French troops to capture Karadzic in his hideout in Bosnia. The French plan had backing from Germany and Britain. But it was blocked by President Bill Clinton in a face-to-face meeting with French leaders: Clinton refused to go along with the move without approval from Moscow. Clinton’s condition was tantamount to a veto: Russian President Boris Yeltsin had already warned that he would send a plane to whisk Karadzic to safety ahead of any commando operation to capture him, Hartmann reveals. Later that year, she adds, Yeltsin did have Karadzic flown to Belarus to be kept there, safely out of sight, for the months before and after the November elections that year in Bosnia.

In publishing these revelations, Hartmann, a veteran reporter for the prestigious Paris daily, Le Monde, has to be considered practically unimpeachable as a source: For six years prior to 2006, she was the spokesperson (and confidante) of Carla Del Ponte, the chief prosecutor of the ICTY, as the Hague tribunal is known. Her presentation of the court’s frustrations about leaders’ secret deals is largely backed up with quotes from officials and from court documents never made public.

Significantly, her account has elicited no real denials from the governments she accuses of complicity in blocking the arrests of Karadzic and Mladic. (It should be noted that, so far, her book has appeared only in French. Moreover, key leaders she names are no longer in office.)

In exposing these hidden episodes, Hartmann has a larger premonitory theme – that Western governments’ own diplomatic goals and security objectives will often override their official rhetoric about justice and reconciliation. Inevitably in post-war situations, the international community’s feelings of urgency about addressing past wrongs and violations of human rights are overtaken by new policy objectives. It makes Hartmann pessimistic about the real potential of the International Criminal Court, the newly installed world body for handling war crimes. It is untested. Even its credentials are uncertain: the United States and China, for example, have declined to become members. If the precedent of the Yugoslav tribunal is anything to go by, it is hard to imagine that this new body will prove effective in bringing to book the key culprits in future trials – for example, the one that will surely come about in the wake of the current massacres in Darfur.

In an interview about her objective in writing Peace and Punishment, Hartmann told an interviewer that she wanted to sound a warning note about the threats to international justice and the ICC, which she believes is the “most precious thing delivered by the barbarous 20th century.” In telling the Balkan story, she said, “I wanted to explain that the problem was not primarily with international justice but with some external factors. It will take time for international justice to become independent, and it was important to write about political influences on the ICTY in order to protect it from such political pressures in the future.”

Unfortunately, in this reviewer’s view, Hartmann’s book sometimes blurs its potential impact because of its elaborate structure. She chose to organize it thematically around four episodes: the birth of the ICTY, the Milosevic trial, the impossible hunt for Karadzic and Mladic, and the nebulous future of the International Criminal Court. The resulting whirlpool of names and dates, spiraling from the 1990s into the 21st century, is liable to disorient any reader who is not already immersed in the subject. For ordinary readers, there is a risk of burying the main train of thought. A straightforward chronological narrative, without all the detours, would probably have proved a more powerful way of delivering the full shock of this grim story of cynicism and cruelty.

The fresh facts she reports will stun even well-informed readers. She shows that from its inception, the ICTY saw its powers of arrest limited and weakened by the governments that were the court’s principle sponsors, including the United States, France, Germany and Britain. From the outset, the court was also hamstrung by political considerations relating to the Dayton peace negotiations on ending the war in Bosnia. Some Western governments, she reports, did not want to charge Milosevic with war crimes as long as he could serve as a partner in the Dayton talks. These political considerations led to legal distortions, questions about whether the shelling of Sarajevo was a crime, and doubts about whether ethnic cleansing should be deemed “slow genocide.” There were other pragmatic considerations at work, too. What would be the impact of the fugitives’ arrest on the fate of the UN peacekeepers detained in Serbia? Or on the outlook for two French fighter pilots captured in Bosnia by General Mladic’s army?

American readers in particular will be curious to discover the ambiguities in U.S. relations with the Hague tribunal. Did U.S. negotiator Richard Holbrooke make a pact with the Devil, promising Karadzic immunity in return for Karadzic’s behind-the-scenes cooperation with the Dayton process? What can be said for certain, according to Hartmann, is that Washington used the tribunal as a threat against key Balkan leaders to “force their hand into concluding the agreements” that stabilized Bosnia. There is also evidence of worse U.S. actions (or rather inactions): American forces under NATO command in Bosnia did nothing to apprehend Karadzic, Hartmann reports, sometimes on the grounds that he was in a “French-controlled zone” of the allied peacekeeping presence. There also was a vague American perception that “taking out Karadzic would ignite an explosive fuse” across the region. She speculates, without any evidence, that there may have been a U.S.-brokered secret agreement guaranteeing Karadzic his freedom on the condition that he abandons any activity as political leader.

Hartmann directs her most stinging criticism at the nascent International Criminal Court. She describes how long and hard the Clinton administration worked to reduce the budget and strength of the ICTY, calculating that its poor performance would undermine the prospects for the creation of the ICC. In her opinion, it was probably the shock of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, that reversed U.S. attitudes, abruptly and unilaterally creating an appetite in Washington for “international justice.” Deep down, she writes, American policymakers dream of trials like those of Saddam Hussein in Iraq or Charles Taylor in Liberia – trials that she says were marred by “limited investigation” and “targeted verdicts.” In her view, there is a nightmare haunting Washington: the thought of U.S. troops facing similar war-crimes trials in some future U.S. foreign campaign against terrorism.

The EU comes in for severe criticism, too, for its inability to live up to its self-proclaimed responsibilities. Hartmann shows how France, Germany, and Great Britain regularly subordinated their rhetorical calls for justice to their overriding diplomatic priority ; maintaining a working relationship with Serbia, still the central power in the Balkans. Indeed, European officials never really twisted Serbian President Vojislav Kostunica’s arm to make him live up to his repeated empty promises to hand over Mladic.

In fact, everyone in this book is caught in their own contradictions. Europeans wax lyrical about the need for justice for the victims of genocide and remembrance about the horror of Srebenica. But in practice the same leaders believe that the Balkans can move into an era free of ethnic cleansing and conquest without taking the risk of putting war criminals behind bars. The United States wants to turn the page in the Balkans by opening NATO’s door to countries there, even if it means that the architects of Bosnia’s cataclysm never have to face their judges.

Implicitly, Hartmann’s work throws the spotlight back on the United Nations. In her book, she pays only passing attention to the work of the UN – or rather the lack of it during the dark years of the conflict in Bosnia, when the world body and its representatives lacked the charisma and persuasive powers to curb the slide into deepening horror. (By implication, her point remains valid today about the UN’s apparent impotence in trying to obtain real and permanent authority for the International Criminal Court. Did the then-Secretary General and Security Council really lack the weight to challenge the hypocrisy of member states about the crisis in Bosnia? In raising that question implicitly about the past, Hartmann depicts the current leadership at UN headquarters as interested in the emergence of this new international agency only on condition that the UN gets ultimate control of it and can ensure that it is run in a way that serves the corporatist interests of the international bureaucracy.

Harsh but timely, Hartmann’s dissection of this all-too-recent history is edifying about the real reefs liable to wreck on arrival any new dispensation in international justice.

François Clemenceau is the U.S. bureau chief of France’s radio network.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 9, Issue number 1-2 in the Winter/Spring of 2008.