Re-living the Balkan Wars Through Serbian Eyes

Apr 11, 2013 | Updated Jun 11, 2013

UNITED NATIONS -- The president of the U.N. General Assembly decided to hold an all day debate on whether international justice promoted reconciliation. But his real purpose was to undermine a war crimes tribunal on the former Yugoslavia because of a perceived bias towards Serbs.

The longest address of the session on the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) -- boycotted by the United States, Canada and Jordan -- came from Tomislav Nikolic, the president of Serbia, who compared the trials to a lynch mob:

One of the legal civilization rules is that in any event an objective and unconditional impartiality of each and every judge must be ensured. We wonder what kind of impartiality is that when there is a systematic atmosphere of a lynch mobbing of everything that is Serbian being created in an environment where the trial is to take place.

The immediate provocation was the controversial freeing last November by an ICTY appeals court of two Croatian generals convicted of crimes against Serbs.

Croatia Nazi puppet regime
The debate was organized by Vuk Jeremic, 38, the articulate and often congenial president of the U.N. General Assembly. A former foreign minister of Serbia who served under the nationalist Serbian Radical Party, the session was scheduled on the anniversary of the founding of the Croatian fascist government, a World War Two Nazi puppet state, whose undeniable cruelty was spelled out by Nikolic also.

Jeremic had been rumored as a future president of Yugoslavia, and even a U.N. secretary-general. But he now can forget any prospect of a top United Nations post as the United States, Britain and others would certainly cast a veto. U.N. diplomats mentioned less controversial candidates in Eastern Europe, from Bulgaria, Slovenia and Slovakia.

The Yugoslav tribunal was established by the U.N. Security Council in May 1993 in reaction to the Balkan wars of slaughter and ethnic cleansing during the break up of Yugoslavia. Since then a series of ad hoc international tribunals (Rwanda genocide, for example) have been created that led to a 1998 decision to establish the International Criminal Court.

"Inflammatory" says US
"The United States strongly disagrees with the decision of the President of the General Assembly to hold an unbalanced, inflammatory thematic debate today on the role of international criminal justice in reconciliation and will not participate," said Erin Pelton, spokesperson for the U.S Mission to the United Nations.

"We regret in regret in particular that the way today's thematic debate and the related panel discussion are structured fail to provide the victims of these atrocities an appropriate voice," she said in an e-mailed statement.

To protest the victims' exclusion from the General Assembly debate, the U.N. ambassadors of Jordan and Liechtenstein, Prince Zeid al Hussein and Christian Wenaweser, respectively called a news conference for victims' groups. (see video)

Mothers of Srebrenica
Munira Subasic, president of the Mother of Srebrenica, the 1995 massacre by Serbs in which an estimated 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were slaughtered, said she was not allowed to speak but attended the debate as an observer.

After hearing Serbia's Nikolic deny the massacre, she put on a T-shirt, later given to U.N Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, which said, "Justice Is Slow But It's Reachable." Security guards then evicted her from the hall.

Jordan's Prince Zeid recalled that the United Nations had been created in response to the paranoia and nationalism fueled by two world wars and on the basis of the notion that collective existence was best served without such motivations or their companions -- chauvinism and bigotry.

Yet, in today's debate, the opinions of war victims from the former Yugoslavia had not been invited and "that was inexcusable" in the "European catastrophe that was Srebrenica." He said justice could never be served, obtained or upheld unless victims were at the center of discussion.

Zeid was a U.N. peacekeeper in Bosnia, from 1994 to 1996, and was the first president of the Assembly of States Parties for the International Criminal Court. Wenaweser served in the same post.

Grating to both ambassadors was the inclusion on a panel of retired Canadian Major General Lewis MacKenzie, who served with the United Nations in Sarajevo. He has been a denier of Serb atrocities ever since.

Not all speakers were pro-Serbian and many defended tribunals to seek justice for war crimes (Costa Rica and the European Union, for example). No doubt the ICTY has convicted more Serbs, who held the upper hand in fighting for years, than individuals from other ethnic groups.

Slash and Burn
Richard Dicker, an expert on international law for Human Rights Watch, told this reporter that "20 years of international justice were far from perfect."

"Important questions need to be looked at critically and carefully but the whole genesis of the event was stacked against an objective, balanced overall presentation," he said. "The orientation of the convener was 'slash and burn.'"

Clear to him and others was that the tribunals did not automatically produce reconciliation since proceedings on the guilt or innocence of individuals did not provide a "comprehensive historical accounting."

In a Huffington Post analysis, he wrote:

And yet international trials for the most serious crimes do realize an important inherent good. While not necessarily bringing reconciliation or deterring future crimes in the short-term, they can, by honoring victims, rendering justice and imposing punishment on the guilty, demonstrate the rule of law in the communities most affected by the crimes. And these trials signal that impunity for such crimes is ending.

David Tolbert, president of the New York-based International Center for Transitional Justice and a former deputy prosecutor of the ICTY, also declined to attend the session. He believed there had to be a process of reconciliation, such as between Germany and France, after World War Two and not just legal procedures. Real reckoning in the Balkans has been limited because there "simply is no existing process of reconciliation."