ICTY Verdict Highlights Need for Regional Cooperation
On November 16th, the ICTY appeals chamber acquitted Croatian generals Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač of war crimes for which they were previously convicted, prompting divisive reactions in Croatia and Serbia. As public celebrations were held in Croatia, president Ivo Josipović welcomed the verdict as "a symbolic satisfaction," with others citing the verdict as proof "that there was no ethnic cleansing in Croatia." Meanwhile, Serbian president Tomislav Nikolić denounced the decision as "scandalous," declaring that it "will not contribute to stabilization of the situation in the region but will reopen all wounds."
The popular response sparked by the verdict in Croatia, widely heralded as the region's leader in European integration, has highlighted the continued sensitivity of meaningfully addressing the country's recent past - and the importance of efforts to foster peaceful dialogue and reconciliation between Croatia, due to join the European Union in July 2013, and Serbia, currently a candidate for membership.
The controversial 3-2 appellate decision hinged on whether the prosecution had met its burden of proof for the existence of a high-level criminal conspiracy between wartime Croatian leaders to cause the permanent removal of the Serb civilian population from the Krajina region. The charges concerned events related to Operation Storm, a Croatian military offensive in August 1995 directed at retaking control of contested territory, in part through extensive artillery attacks on four major towns in the region. Hundreds of civilians were killed, and as many as 200,000 Croatian Serbs fled the region during and in the aftermath of the operation.
Gotovina and Markač received heroes' welcomes upon their arrival in Zagreb, but the full implications of the judgment, which has been widely interpreted as an international legitimization of Operation Storm, are likely to extend beyond this case.
Serbia, which last year extradited Goran Hadzic, accused of crimes committed against Croat civilians in Croatia, and the last indicted top commander then at large, has announced that its cooperation with the ICTY will not be stopped, but will continue on a strictly technical basis through formal correspondence.
Both Croatia and Serbia have lawsuits filed with the International Court of Justice accusing the other of committing genocide during the 1991-1995 Balkan War. The ICTY verdict may impact Serbia’s charge that acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing took place in Operation Storm. At least one analyst has also cautioned that the verdict represents a worrying new precedent for future prosecutions of military crimes against civilians, by finding that any target can be retrospectively defined as having been military and that the articulation of policy is not relevant in the task of characterizing a policy.
The acquittal of Gotovina and Markač comes on the eve of a judgment in another high-profile ICTY case - the re-trial of Ramush Haradinaj, Idriz Balaj, and Lahi Brahimaj, accused of crimes against civilians during the Kosovo conflict in the late 1990s – and has fuelled skepticism of the tribunal’s depoliticized impartiality and suspicions that crimes against Serb civilians may go unpunished.
Public perceptions of the ICTY as a potential source of justice for all victims of the recent Balkan conflicts have been shaken. For many years, civil society in the Balkans has looked to the ICTY as one possible tool for reconciliation, and in this respect, Friday’s events represented a demoralizing setback for some. The divergent public reactions illustrate the continued challenges confronting those struggling to bridge divides, and indicate a need to further investigate complementary opportunities to overcome mistrust and differing interpretations of recent history, and to foster cooperation.
Thus, it is no coincidence that civil society organizations in the two countries adopted a more moderate and conciliatory response, urging that the acquittals not overshadow the continued need to work toward justice and recognition for the victims of the war. Youth Initiative for Human Rights Croatia noted that the trial’s descriptions of serious crimes committed during Operation Storm, are still valid and that after the verdict, there is more than ever a need for the Croatian judiciary to prosecute those responsible for these crimes. Documenta – Centre for Dealing with the Past emphasized that fewer than half of the displaced Serbs have returned to their homes, and that the crimes committed during Operation Storm must not remain a tragedy without closure, calling on Croatian institutions to assume full responsibility for the prosecution of war crimes, and to provide compensation to civilian victims of war. Group 484, a Belgrade-based organization dedicated to forced migration issues, originally established to support the influx of a large number of Serb refugees from Operation Storm, warned that the verdict hindered efforts for a common and balanced position towards the recent past, particularly towards building peace, trust and cooperation in the region. Women in Black, noting that “much of the population of the former Yugoslavia was pushed into war against their will and without their consent,” called for the acknowledgement of suffering of all victims and survivors.
While the heated reactions to the ICTY ruling is likely to hinder prospects for reconciliation and cooperation efforts in the short-term, it remains clear that the main burden for moving Western Balkan societies forward on their path to fully embracing European values and principles rests on the shoulders of the citizens of the region. Although international courts may be perceived by some as not fulfilling their stated mandate, no outside authority may provide any greater legitimacy to the process of dealing with the recent past than what the leaders of the region may bring to it themselves.
Bridget Millman is a program coordinator with the German Marshall Fund's Balkan Trust for Democracy in Belgrade.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.