Monday, February 26, 2007

Genocide, Bosnia and the ICTY

After all that, this. According to the Associated Press report, the International Court of Justice finds that no one in Serbia, or any official organ of the state, could be shown to have had the deliberate intention to "destroy in whole or in part" the Bosnian Muslim population. "The judges found that Serbia, although it supported the Bosnian Serbs, fell short of having effective control over the Bosnian army and the paramilitary units that carried out the massacre". Further, "Unusual for such an important case, most judges were in accord, voting overwhelmingly on the various points of the decision."

This assessment results from a case put by the Bosnian government, and it conclusively debunks the legal case that the massacres carried out by the Bosnian Serb army were part of a campaign of genocide. There is no question that the Bosnian Serb army committed atrocities, as did the Bosnian Croat army and the Bosnian Muslim army; further, Serbian and Croatian forces carried out the most killings and atrocities, reflecting their relative strength in the civil war that they were fighting (a civil war that need not have happened, had the United States government not encouraged its client Alia Izetbegovic to withdraw from an already negotiated settlement). However, there is no basis for the claim that the Serbian government ordered, encouraged or participated in a genocide against Bosnian Muslims. Why does this matter? Well, truth matters. It does matter if the repeated claims of an expansionist Serbian state recreating fascism, genocide and concentration camps on European soil were a pack of lies. It does matter if Western states and media organisations retailed a fairy tale, with Izetbegovic given a size-nine halo, Tudman largely acquitted (until he conveniently snuffed it) and Milosevic equipped with horns and trident. It does matter if those apologists for Western state aggression, Glucksmann, Ignatieff, Hitchens et al, regurgitated propaganda with the ludicrous result that when Yugoslavia was bombed Western liberals were actually able to derive some libidinal satisfaction from it, guilt-free. It does matter if our language is degraded so that the word genocide can be promiscuously bruited by those who, by their own implicit definitions, could find themselves charged with genocide practically every week.

It also sheds some light on the procedures of another court. As Ed Herman has correctly pointed out:

Milosevic was not indicted along with Mladic and Karadzic in 1995 for the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia in prior years, so the belated attempt in The Hague in 2002 to make him responsible for those killings suggests that UN war crimes tribunal chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte did this because she saw that the killings in Kosovo fell far short of anything she could pass off as "genocide".


The ICTY, which is to be distinguished from both the ICC and the International Court of Justice, has been pursuing a process of indictments of senior state and army personnel, including most notoriously the trial of Milosevic. It has refused to take up the issue of war crimes committed by the United States in Yugoslavia, because it owes its existence to the United States. It was and remains an auxiliary of American power, and this verdict lends some weight to Herman's suggestion.

You may say, reasonably, that the ICTY's own verdicts and conclusions also make the point well enough. You may fairly add that the ICJ doesn't challenge the ICTY's definition of the Srebrenica massacre as 'genocide' - indeed, affirms it - but merely says that this was the responsibility of the Bosnian Serb army under General Krstic, who himself is presumed to have been acting under orders from Ratko Mladic. That is true, and strange: the massacre of thousands of men of military age is an atrocity, but under no reasonable definition is it genocide. Although if we were to expand the definition of genocide in that fashion, we would end up including several recent massacres by the United States government in the category of genocide: in fact, the massacre at Mazar i-Sharif would also be genocide. The sole purpose of using the word here is to instrumentalise its normative force, to affirm the basic narrative, and to avoid the reality that a civil war driven by competing nationalist states pursuit of influence in the post-federal polity, and manipulated by imperialist states, killed 100,000 people in Bosnia, with the dead including 55,261 civilians, of which 38,000 were Muslims and Croats, and 16,700 Serbs. As Ed Herman has written elsewhere, the narrative of a Srebrenica genocide has been politically useful in various ways: first, it obscured the process of massacres and ethnic cleansing being carried out by Croat forces at the time, when Croatia was being supported by Western powers; second, it provided an excellent cover story for the 1995 bombing of Serb positions and subsequent carve-up, with its disastrous consequences; third, it has provided a compelling excuse for prolonged intervention into the former Yugoslavia long after the massacre, with the West's political and military control effectively persisting in both Bosnia and Kosovo to this day. They are, you are supposed to gather, holding back the next genocide.

Because there was not genocide, but massacres on all sides, as it were, because none of the state leaderships was angelic, does not mean we should be satisfied with the repellent explanation offered by some that nationalist/tribal hatreds dunnit. That culturalist explanation is every bit as facile as Hitchens' understanding of the conflict, which was that it was between those who loved cosmopolitanism and religious freedom, and those who supported segregation and religious intolerance and so on. The story initially is one of state failure, of ruthless IMF-driven neoliberalism that produces wave after wave of political crisis and struggle, of savage cutbacks and extraordinary levels of unemployment, and of recrudescent nationalism among the intelligentsia that is increasingly instrumentalised by the various states in the federal republic. Secondly, it is one of conflict over the power that each state would have in the future. For Croatia and Slovenia, the two richest states, the promise of Europe was alluring compared to remaining in a failing state with massive problems of production and cohesion. On the other hand, they weren't too solicitous with constitutional law on matters of secession, and Croatia in particular had begun to repress its Serb minority in ways that gave them ample reason to worry about their illegal secession (part of the illegality of Croatia's secession was that it ignored the wishes of the Serb minority, in violation of constitutional law). Izetbegovic began planning for a war as early as February 1991, and had formed paramilitaries and started to seek assistance from Muslim supporters several months before declaring independence and long before the founding of the Republic of the Serbian People of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Thirdly, the story is one of imperialist intervention. Western powers saw the crisis and attempted to turn the situation to their advantage. Germany was swift to recognise Croatia an Slovenia when they decided to break away. The United States and the EU recognised Bosnia and Herzogovina as an independent state in 1992, despite the fact that only 39% of voters had registered support for secession, and despite the obvious opposition of Bosnian Serbs. This last resulted in Bosnian Serbs declaring their own independent republic, thus prompting Izetbegovic's declaration of war. The Yugoslav national army intervened in a half-hearted, brief effort to prevent Slovenian secession, but made a more successful and sustained bid to capture large areas of Croatia, including those areas with dense Serb populations. Croatia, for its part, sought not only to recapture lost territory but to annexe a sizeable portion of Bosnia too. In 1995, Croatia launched an ethnic cleansing drive in Krajina called Operation Storm, driving out not only the Serb forces but the pesky Serb population whose complaints of suffering oppression at the hands of a Nazi sympathiser and his army had caused some problems. Two months previously, Bosnian Serb forces committed the notorious massacre at Srebrenica. Several smaller massacres were also being carried out by Serb, Croat and Muslim forces, as is well-known and partially attested to by the mortality figures. And the US, amid a flurry of self-righteous propaganda, launched bombing raids on Serbian positions until it achieved acquiescence and cemented partition on terms amenable to itself, with a Western-imposed polity ruling in Bosnia, pro-Western regimes in Croatia and Slovenia, and the FRY substantially reduced in size. With the glorious intervention into Kosovo, whose noble impress includes ethnic cleansing, child sex slavery, corrupt occupation and immiseration, a second military base in the Balkans was established, using the KLA as a political foil. In 2000, David Benjamin, a member of the US National Security Council under Clinton, took Bush to task over his early criticisms of "nation-building" in Kosovo:

Mr Bush showed a misunderstanding of a major strategic achievement of the Clinton administration ... In particular [he] missed the intrinsic connections between enlargement and the conflict in the Balkans ... NATO enlargement advanced US interests in dealing with one of the country's foremost strategic challenges: coping with a post-communist Russia whose trajectory remains in question. (Quoted in Vassilis K. Fouskas, Zones of Conflict: US Foreign Policy in the Balkans and the Greater Middle East, Pluto Press, 2003, p 49).


NATO enlargement, hedging in post-communist Russia, advancing US strategic interests. For such prizes, they helped bring devastation to Yugoslavia. For such rewards, they spent years promoting a heavily politicised 'tribunal' to produce a background noise of "genocide" on European soil. And it is to preserve the utility of this tactic that anyone, like Chomsky or Herman, who happens to take truth seriously, is ritually denounced for "downplaying" atrocities, or even supporting genocide.