New Times,
New Thinking.

  1. Long reads
23 July 2008

The trial of Karadzic

A trial in Belgrade would trigger a real debate about Serbia’s role in the destruction of the Yugosl

By Gregory Kent

News of the discovery and arrest of Radovan Karadzic, one of several key architects of the war and genocide in Bosnia between 1992 and 1995, is a rare international news event – worthy of celebration but laden with challenges for Serbia and the West, and Europe in particular.

It is possible to argue that army leaders and the president of Serbia at the time of the war played a more significant role in shaping the destruction of Bosnia than Karadzic. But that would be to misunderstand the role this master of dissimulation played during the war as a political communicator with the West and the rest of the world.

In 1992 key European powers, France under Mitterand, and Britain under Major, did all they could to keep out of a war they misunderstood, perhaps intentionally. The war was sold to Western publics as a confusing, anarchic, essentially civil, ethnic conflict.

It’s amazing to hear the many international representatives who held doggedly to this position throughout this proximate and heart-rending war now re-interpreting whole crisis as primarily about Serbia’s genocidal project of expansion – which it was, even back then.

So for three years Karadzic was the man who put the spin on Serbian massacres in eastern Bosnia in the spring of 1992 – the first phase of genocide – as ‘all sides are attacking, killing’, the Serbian siege of Sarajevo as ‘the Muslims are attacking us’, and the general problem of causation as ‘the people hate each other, they can’t live together’.

Select and enter your email address Your weekly guide to the best writing on ideas, politics, books and culture every Saturday. The best way to sign up for The Saturday Read is via The New Statesman's quick and essential guide to the news and politics of the day. The best way to sign up for Morning Call is via
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how Progressive Media Investments may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

When Serbian mortars ripped apart civilians queuing for bread or water in Sarajevo, Karadzic took the line that ‘the Muslims shelled themselves’. Many people believed all of this or just enough of it to produce an understandably apathetic response. In this way intervention was pushed off the political agenda; public outrage did exist – for a counter or parallel narrative of clear Serbian responsibility was present, too – but was sapped in a confusing stew of contradictory overarching narratives about the war.

Karadzic was the lead man in this endeavour. Without a consistent, systematic effort of denial and obfuscation genocide rarely goes unnoticed and therefore unchallenged, in some way, even in remote regions such as Darfur. Serbia was able to destroy Bosnian society because of its effective propaganda of denial.

If not for the excesses of Srebrenica they might have got away with it – the West having turned a blind eye to genocide and a brutal war of aggression in its own backyard for years before that terrible week of massacres back in July 1995.

So having failed in the Balkans so abysmally for years, Europe needs to win there now. Since the robust response to a similar campaign by Milosevic and his cronies in Kosova in 1998-9, it’s possible to argue the policy of the Union has started to show some success. The problem of Karadzic – for he is now a challenge – will need effective management by both Serbia and the EU.

Karadzic is 63 – Milosevic arrived at the Hague aged 59 – and has lived a highly stressful existence, expecting a Nato commando raid any moment, it seems, for over a decade. Like Milosevic, he may die also before a verdict is reached. The Tribunal’s reputation was severely damaged by the ineffective, if understandable manner in which it dealt with the mastermind of the whole strategy for a greater Serbia. If Karadzic’s trial doesn’t result in conviction for genocide and other crimes against humanity it will be difficult to look back at this ad hoc court as having been successful, despite the huge sums invested and commitment made to it and its many smaller successes.

So it is essential that the lessons learned from Milosevic trial experience are applied to this new trial.

Ideally the trial should be held in Serbia. International tribunals (including the ICC) generally try cases where there is no prospect of justice in the country where the indictee comes from. This isn’t the case in Serbia which has prosecuted several smaller fish over recent years. The effect of such a trial would be dramatic on the Serbian justice system and on wider politics, too.

It would confront head-on the extreme nationalism that poisons political life there. The familiar and powerful nationalist line is that the whole Hague process is a series of external, Western-imposed, anti-Serbian show trials.

This lame lie would not be available to the extremists were the trial to take place in Belgrade. A real debate would be had, at last, about Serbia’s role in the destruction of the Yugoslav state and Bosnian society. There would be dangers in this approach; media coverage would need to be carefully managed to prevent the extreme right from benefiting from the sympathy for a ‘martyred hero’ as they would undoubtedly see it. But wherever the trial is held, there are several key improvements essential to its success:

Karadzic must not languish in jail for years while the prosecution prepares its case.

Related to this, the process should be speeded up by simplifying the indictment(s). (Unlike the Saddam case, Karadzic must be tried for the most serious crimes first. He must be tried for genocide – which two international tribunals (ICJ and ICTY) have already ruled on and found happened – most likely relating to the Srebrenica massacres. Lesser indictments could be grouped and presented subsequently.)

If Karadzic refuses to recognize the court as Milosevic (and Saddam) did, the Tribunal must appoint a legal team for him (as would happen in Serbia anyway).

The court day needs to be lengthened to speed up the process and judges must take a much firmer line on interruptions and delays from the defendant.

Even if the trial proves a success, the threat of assassination of the enlightened democratic leadership in Belgrade will hang over Serbia for many years. The assassination of Zoran Djindjic is thought to have been in response to Milosevic’s extradition. Arguably it put back reform several years.

Extreme nationalism (if it weren’t so over used, ‘fascism’ would be the term most appropriate here) is still a powerful and destructive force in the country. The Radicals are an extreme nationalist party whose leader is current being tried at the Hague on eight counts of crimes against humanity. This party scored almost 30 per cent in parliamentary elections last year.

The deputy leader gained 47 per cent to President Tadic’s 51 percent in the recent presidential run-off elections. With the largely unreconstructed Serbian nationalism of Vojislav Kostunica’s party gaining about 17 per cent, its clear that Serbian society, broadly speaking, is polarised. Politics is divided almost equally between liberal internationalists and those clinging to ideas similar to those that helped foment the wars in the 1990s. A small swing in opinion could radically alter Serbia’s political direction. The trial should be seen as a tool with which to continue the process of de-radicalising Serbian national sentiment.

The EU must therefore use all means to shift Serbia onto more stable, less self-destructive territory. Most observers are agreed that the best way for this to happen is to hold out the carrot of membership of the Union in the not too distant future and this is precisely what the Council foreign ministers have been doing.

The successful prosecution of Karadzic is important not only to Serbia and Europe but has meaning for the development of justice on a global scale. The role of the Yugoslav crisis in world politics remains underestimated even as our Iraq war obsessions fade.

It took more than the end of the Cold War to restart the processes of international criminal justice began at Nuremberg over sixty years before. The wars of Serbian expansion were the other necessary condition for the blooming of accountability for serious crimes at the highest level and on a global scale.

Since then, despite many pitfalls, the international criminal justice arena has changed beyond recognition. Saddam Hussein has been tried and found guilty of one of his lesser crimes in a trial that just about met international standards. Chemical Ali was found guilty of genocide. Charles Taylor is currently on trial in the special tribunal for Sierra Leone. After years of stalling Cambodian authorities now have five former Khmer Rouge leaders in detention pending trial: Ieng Sary, Khieu Samphan, Nuon Chea, Ieng Thirith and Kaing Guek Eav, a.k.a. Duch. Three others may join them soon. Congo warlord Thomas Lubanga is being tried at the ICC. The Lords Resistance Army leadership in Uganda and the genocidaires of Sudan have been indicted despite inexplicable opposition and outcry from liberals, leftists, Islamists and pan-Africanists throughout the world.

Karadzic’s successful prosecution will further consolidate the new norm of accountability. Future war criminals and despots, we must hope, will remember the trial of Karadzic with trepidation; the swift, fair but tough justice of the case a cause to stop and think about the consequences of brutal policies they actually have a choice about whether to carry out.

Dr Gregory Kent is a senior lecturer at Roehampton University specialising in human rights. He is the author of Framing War and Genocide: British policy and Media reaction to the War in Bosnia, Hampton Press (2006)

Content from our partners
Peatlands are nature's unsung climate warriors
How the apprenticeship levy helps small businesses to transform their workforce
How to reform the apprenticeship levy