Yesterday saw the guilty verdict at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia of Radovan Karadzic for responsibility for genocide in Srebrenica and a further five counts of crimes against humanity and four of war crimes, including taking UN peacekeepers hostage, deporting civilians, murder and attacks on combatants. He received a sentence of forty years in prison, a judgement he received in court without reaction. According to reports those watching from the public gallery were equally impassive, this was not a moment of celebration, not after twenty one years of waiting.
As numerous commentators have suggested — or have perhaps wished — this is seen as a significant moment for the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), remarks yesterday referred in rather abstract terms to the potential to help ‘heal’ the old wounds in the country. Not withstanding the problematic corporeal imagination of the BiH state, this is an optimistic view of the significance of the case. That is not to say that such judgements do not have effects. The ICTY’s role was written in to the Dayton Agreement, and its position was seemingly designed to block the political aspiration of Karadzic (and other senior war time leaders) from prominent roles in the future BiH state (for example Article IX of the agreement states that “no person who is serving a sentence imposed by the International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, and no person who is under indictment by the Tribunal and who has failed to comply with an order to appear before the Tribunal, may stand as a candidate or hold any appointive, elective, or other public office in the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina”). In this the Tribunal has been effective, and books such as Lara Nettelfield’s (2012) account of the significance of the ICTY to the consolidation of the BiH state point rightly at the role retributive mechanisms can have in achieving justice in post-conflict environments. In an context such as BiH where crimes on the scale of genocide are regularly denied or questioned by senior political figures, the trial and verdict of individuals such as Karadzic performs an important function of asserting certain truths back into popular and media discourse.
Elsewhere I have discussed the potential role that the ICTY has to play in consolidating the BiH state, coupled with the dangers of vilifying a single individual for the widespread crimes that took place during the conflict. Here I want to draw attention to the significance of time to the operation of transitional justice. The passage of twenty years between the crime and its legal reckoning does not simply pose a struggle in terms of reconstructing the events through evidence and witness testimony. It also allows the crimes to be geopolitically reframed, a new context and purpose asserted for the events of the past. Commentators have often struggled with how to insert the violence in Yugoslavia into wider geopolitical story lines, and in the late 1990s and early 2000s revisionist scholars sought to place the events within a wider drama of US neo-imperial geopolitics (Chomsky’s New Military Humanism is one of the more measured examples of the genre). The problem is that the fragmentation of Yugoslavia didn’t really fit this storyline. As the brilliant work of Gerard Toal and Carl Dahlman (amongst others) has shown over the years, there is a much more complex set of geopolitical reasoning taking place, one that was dynamic, driven by multiple agendas and was, overall, prone to error and misinterpretation (rather than the grand calculations of an unseen hegemon).
But rather than dwelling on the unfounded nature of these accounts of the violence, what they point to is the mutable nature of these events: that the intentions that lie behind the violence may be reinterpreted in new geopolitical circumstances. This has been a common practice amongst those accused of war crime, by definition they are trying to explain their actions under a previous political regime and during a time of war. In the case of BiH, the narrative that has risen to prominence is that of the fears of an ‘Islamic State’, regardless of the extent to which this actually ,motivated those fighting to preserve the territorial integrity of the newly independent BiH state in April 1992. This was, then at the heart of Karadzic’s claims to innocence, as the New York Times remarks:
He mounted a zealous defense, bringing 238 witnesses to attest to his innocence. He based his defense on the premise that the Bosnian war broke out because Serbs had no choice but to defend themselves against a Bosnian Muslim separatist regime that intended to create an Islamic state.
The intention here is clear. To reframe the violence enacted in the name of the Republika Srpska from a separatist conflict to being a defence against an extremist politics that threatened the region. In many respects this is an old refrain, echoing as it does the claims made by Serb nationalist leaders that they were the true defenders of Europe against the Ottoman threat of the 14th century, a discourse that is dusted off and recast for an era of Syrian emigration and the threat of Islamic extremism. Collectively the passage of time, the priviledged subject position of being sole defendant in an international court, and a global media giving credence to his narrative of the conflict, allowed Karadzic to reframe the geopolitics of genocide, to claim that such extreme violence was part of a wider fight against a threat made real in the mountains of BiH. That this was not granted credence by the judiciary is certainly to be celebrated. Whether it can go on to shape the domestic politics of BiH remains to be seen.
Alex Jeffrey, March 2016
Photo: Sarajevo Bascarsija