The news on Friday, Nov. 16, was stale: Israel bombing Gaza, strikes in Europe, IKEA using forced labour – nothing new there.
Even so, a report from the UN’s International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague could not get serious attention: Two Croatian generals, originally sentenced to 24 and 18 years for taking part in the killing of hundreds of Serbs and the expulsion of 220,000 more from their homes in Croatia in 1995, had been freed on appeal.
Tens of thousands of Croats – some of them in masks and uniforms – stood in public squares around the country and watched the live broadcast of the ruling. They rejoiced at the news.
At about the same time, tens of thousands of Serbs cried foul. There are still some 70,000 refugees in Serbia, and the outpouring of anger and bitterness came from all sides of the political spectrum. For years, Serbian politicians had tried to persuade voters that the Hague tribunal was not a political body and was independent of major powers with interests in the region. The ruling wiped out the notion of one code of justice for all.
The Serbian government immediately cancelled its participation in a conference on the criminal tribunal and lowered its co-operation with The Hague to a technical level.
The Croatian government sent a plane to bring its boys home.
Both governments needed precisely such a ruling.
Croatia needed it to show that the country was always a victim and never a perpetrator of war crimes. Victims get credits, perpetrators don’t. The level of Croatian debt is staggering – more than $60-billion, 99 per cent of GDP. Serbian foreign debt is half that, but so is the average income – $474 a month (net) compared with $929 in Croatia.
In Serbia, the right-wing government is struggling to find a convenient enemy so it can bare its teeth. Kosovo is not a good choice, as the United States is too firmly behind its independence. The Hague tribunal is better, especially now that co-operation with it is no longer necessary. All the major players of the wars in the former Yugoslavia are already dead, processed or awaiting their trials, and the court will soon close.
But the decision of the appeals court deserves our attention – for reasons that are not immediately obvious.
The ruling sets a dangerous precedent because it applies not only to the two generals but to the whole Croatian leadership of the time and, consequently, to the issue of guilt in the Croatian war of the 1990s.
Croatia and Serbia have sued each other for war damages. In Serbia, the Hague ruling was perceived as a betrayal. Belgrade had co-operated with the tribunal – despite the political costs such co-operation carried – but the rest of the warring parties did not.
If a court considering war reparations takes the Hague decision as a precedent and rules in Croatia’s favour, it will create in the Balkans a situation dangerously close to what the Treaty of Versailles created in 1919. Without Versailles, there would have been no Hitler. Impoverished people who feel that an injustice has been done to them are sure to become soldiers.
But an even more dangerous precedent was hidden in the fine print of the ruling. When sentencing the generals, the original court had decided that the shelling of anything more than 200 metres from a military target should be considered a deliberate targeting of civilians and a war crime. The court of appeals struck this down. The consequences are obvious: It will be much harder to prove the guilt of those who perpetrate war crimes in the future. Take the current shelling of Gaza, for example: According to the Hague ruling, that’s acceptable.
Dragan Todorovic is the award-winning author of The Book of Revenge: A Blues for Yugoslavia.