To great fanfare in the Western media, the Serbian government recently arrested Radovan Karadzic, leader of the Bosnian Serb nationalist cause during the war in the former Yugoslavia in the early to mid-1990s, on war crimes charges.
Karadzic and Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic, who is still at large, have been indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), located in the Hague, in connection with the siege of Sarajevo, during which up to 11,000 people were killed, and the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica.
That Karadzic is responsible for war crimes should not be in question. Under his political leadership, Serbian nationalists engaged in terrible atrocities–including the shelling of cities and towns, massacres of civilians, rapes and herding people into concentration camps–to drive people out and create an “ethnically pure” swath of Bosnia and the Krajina region of Croatia that they hoped to annex to Serbia.
But this fact alone does not close the case. As with all war crimes tribunals in history, there is selectiveness about what is considered a war crime and who ends up on the dock.
After the Second World War, some Nazis were put on trial in Nuremburg (though because of U.S. Cold War interests in establishing a strong German state and utilizing former Nazis as spies and scientists, the trials were wound up quickly). But as a court of the victors, no Americans were tried for the nuclear obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki or for the firebombing of Tokyo and Dresden.
Throughout the Balkans conflict, Serbs were systematically demonized in the Western press, while atrocities and ethnic cleansing committed by Croats and Muslims were either omitted or played down.
On first look, the ICTY offers an image of impartiality. In addition to indicting Slobodan Milosevic, Karadzic and Mladic, it has also indicted Milan Babić, president of the Republika Srpska Krajina; Ramush Haradinaj, former prime minister of Kosovo (recently acquitted); Rasim Delić, who served as commander of the main staff of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina from June 1993 until September 200; and Ante Gotovina, former general of the Croatian Army (currently on trial).
However, of the 161 individuals indicted by the ICTY, from common soldiers to generals, police commanders and political leaders, three-quarters are Serbs or Montenegrins. This is not surprising considering the court was established by the UN Security Council, under pressure from the U.S.–making it, again, a “court of the victors.”
While it is true that the conflict in the region developed out of the ambitions of Slobodan Milosevic for a greater Serbia, uniting the Serbs of Serbia with those living in Bosnia and Croatia, Croatia’s nationalists under Franjo Tudjman were no less ruthless in their efforts to create a “greater Croatia,” based on the ethnic cleansing of Serbs from the Krajina and Serbs and Muslims from parts of Bosnia.
Croatian paramilitaries massacred hundreds of Muslim civilians in the town of Ahmici, to give just one example. After shelling the town to force townspeople to flee, Croatian forces sprayed them with machine gun fire across an open field through which the people were forced to run, a scenario similar to the atrocities committed by Serbian forces in many Bosnian villages during the war.
Indeed, as Bosnia came under attack from Serbian and Croatian paramilitaries, Muslim nationalists, with (eventually) military aid and air support from the U.S. and Europe, engaged in similar acts of ethnic cleansing as their Serbian and Croatian counterparts. Journalist Misha Glenny, in his excellent book The Fall of Yugoslavia, offers an example:
Wherever they could, the Muslims used the considerable sympathy which they enjoyed in the outside world as a cover to undertake military operations.
In December and early January , they launched an intensive offensive from Srebrenica with the aim of regaining control of Bratunac, to the east on the river Drina. The Serbs were caught unawares by the attack, and the Muslims moved swiftly through Serbian villages, slaughtering a large number of civilians on the way. Because the atrocities were being perpetrated by the Muslims, they received relatively little attention in the world media.
They also provoked a fearsome counter-attack by the Serbs, who had soon driven the Muslims back to Srebrenica. Politicians and journalists were quick to condemn the Serbs for this operation, but they entirely neglected to point out that it had been provoked by the original Muslim offensive.
But what really throws the impartiality of the court into question is that no individuals–military or political leaders–from NATO countries that intervened in the war have been indicted. Yet there can be no doubt that the United States and NATO forces committed war crimes in the former Yugoslavia–first, in the Bosnian war, and later, in the air war against Serbia in 1999 during the conflict over Kosovo.
From the start, there was the complicity of the Western powers in creating the conditions that made war and ethnic cleansing inevitable. As Phil Gasper wrote:
In the end, Germany’s recognition of Croatia’s independence–without any guarantees of the Serb minority’s national rights in Croatia–made the outbreak of war and the disintegration of Yugoslavia inevitable. The same holds true for Bosnia. Germany and the U.S. recognized Bosnian independence even though the majority of Bosnian Serbs and Croats–about 51 percent of the republic–had rejected it. By doing so, they put their seal of approval on Bosnia’s descent into war.
Then there is the direct complicity of the United States in the greatest single act of ethnic cleansing that took place during the war–Operation Storm in August 1995.
By 1993, the U.S. was finally able to strong-arm its reluctant European war partners into adopting a new policy (the old one being an arms embargo on Bosnia)–NATO air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs, combined with arming the Bosnian Muslim army. The policy was called “lift and strike.”
Peter Galbraith, U.S. ambassador to Croatia, brokered a new alliance–after the two sides had been fighting for months in central Bosnia–between Croatia and the Bosnian Muslims.
To “level the playing field” further, a group of retired U.S. generals helped Croatia to devise a military plan, with U.S. and German military aid, to overrun the Serb-held Krajina region. A private U.S. mercenary company, Military Professional Resources Inc., provided training to the Croatian Army.
The August 4, 1995, Croatian offensive, dubbed “Operation Storm,” drove upwards of 200,000 Krajina Serbs from their homes. Human rights observers reported the burning of homes, looting and massacres of elderly Serbs too old to flee the region. Croatia was completely “cleansed” of its historic Serbian population, and in the following weeks, U.S. air support for Muslim and Croatian forces allowed them to seize 20 percent of Bosnia back from the Serbs.
According to Mark Danner, writing in the New York Review of Books:
During two weeks beginning at the end of August, NATO pilots flew 3m400 sorties, destroying Serb antiaircraft batteries, radar sites, ammunition depots, command bunkers, bridges. Meanwhile, the Croats and Bosnians pressed their combined attacks in northwest Bosnia, conquering town after town. Indeed, NATO planes had in effect become the Croatian and Bosnian air force, ensuring that they would succeed, in just over two weeks, in changing the balance of power in Bosnia.
Bill Clinton praised Operation Storm, saying that he was “hopeful Croatia’s offensive will turn out to be something that will give us an avenue to a quick diplomatic solution.” The three-pronged offensive–the Croat invasion of Krajina, a Muslim attack in central Bosnia and punishing air strikes–pushed all sides to the negotiating table in 1995 to sign the Dayton Accords.
Today, Ante Gotovina, the Croatian general who led Operation Storm, along with two other generals, is currently facing trial on war crimes charges associated with that operation. But Bill Clinton and the U.S. generals who helped plan it and gave the green light for it remain at large.
Finally, the 11-week NATO air assault on Serbia during the Kosovo war in 1999 is a war crime that the tribunal won’t touch.
The U.S. claimed that it went to war to help Kosovar Albanian refugees under attack by Serbian forces. However, the NATO bombing produced another several hundred thousand Kosovar refugees and later helped facilitate the cleansing of the Serb minority from Kosovo.
U.S. and NATO planes conducted several thousand sorties, destroying Serbia’s power grid, factories (372 industrial sites), railways, bridges, schools and hospitals. Between 1,200 and 1,500 Serb civilians and as many as 5,000 Serbian military personnel were killed. At one point, NATO planes destroyed a bridge filled with fleeing refugees, killing 87 people. After blowing up Belgrade’s TV station with a cruise missile, killing 16 people, NATO officials justified it by claiming that the station had been a source of “propaganda.”
Directing and encouraging ethnic cleansing, playing one nationality off of another, bombing civilian infrastructure and murdering civilians–these acts engaged in by the U.S. and its NATO allies took place under the pleasant halo of “humanitarian intervention.”
The perpetrators of these great “humanitarian” deeds will likely never see the inside of a jail cell or face criminal prosecution for their crimes against humanity without a massive alteration in the balance of forces in the world between the powerful and the dispossessed.